Imagine having 100 million shares on a post, or more views on a video than the population of Earth.
That's a problem which Chinese social media companies have dealt with, and their efforts to curb artificial traffic offer a cautionary tale for global platforms like Instagram, which are hoping to combat a culture of click-chasing.
Last week, Instagram started hiding the number of users who "like" a post for some accounts in the United States, following similar tests in other countries. CEO Adam Mosseri said the idea was to "depressurize Instagram, making it less of a competition."
Today a small portion of people on Instagram worldwide will no longer be able to see the number of likes other people's photos get. Our hope is to better understand how this idea changes how people feel about using our platform, particularly young people. https://t.co/NdODxtKbky
" Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) November 14, 2019
For influencers who make much of their living off sponsored posts and brand partnerships, the removal of like counters"which are often used to judge how successful a campaign is"threatens to cut into their bottom line.
Critics say the like is no longer a reliable indicator of popularity, owing to the widespread practice of buying followers and fake engagement.
But critics say the like is no longer a reliable indicator of popularity, owing to the widespread practice of buying followers and fake engagement.
(Read more: Inside a Chinese social media influencer factory)
Nowhere is that more apparent than in China, where the sheer volume of internet users has made the problem of like-chasing even more acute.
Youku and iQiyi became the butt of national jokes when each of the platform's top 10 shows amassed more than 10 billion online views"a number that exceeds the entire population of Earth.
Last year, teenage heartthrob Cai Xukun was singled out for having a suspiciously large number of posts with more than 100 million shares on Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter. (The platform has just over 300 million monthly active users, according to What's on Weibo, which tracks Chinese social media trends.)
And in 2017, video streamings sites Youku and iQiyi became the butt of national jokes when each of the platform's top 10 shows amassed more than 10 billion online views"a number that exceeds the entire population of Earth.
(Youku is a subsidiary of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, the parent company of Goldthread.)
To combat artificial traffic, Weibo has since stopped displaying share counts above one million. Like Instagram, the company said it was committed to "freeing the community from a vicious race" for clicks.
(Read more: I bought fake Twitter followers on China's Amazon)
Youku and iQiyi also stopped showing viewer numbers after finding that many of them came from so-called click farms. These services rack up fake engagement by hooking together hundreds of smartphones and playing videos on loop.
A post shared by Goldthread (@goldthread2) on Mar 17, 2019 at 8:28pm PDT
But all these efforts haven't stopped people"especially ardent fans of certain celebrities"from trying to game the system.
In China, they are called shuijun 水军, literally "flood armies," because they unleash a flood of likes and shares on social media feeds.
When Chinese-Canadian rapper Kris Wu made global headlines last year for bumping Ariana Grande off the U.S. iTunes chart, it prompted many perplexed Americans to ask, "Kris who?"
At the time, the South China Morning Post reported Wu fans sharing instructions on Weibo on how to boost the artist's iTunes ranking by getting a U.S. Apple ID, buying songs using gift cards, clearing the cache, and repeat.
Another common tactic involves fans congregating in online groups and advising each other to create multiple accounts on Weibo, from which they share posts more than 100 times a day.
As long as some sort of popularity metric exists, it will be difficult to stop people from trying to manipulate them.
For these dedicated fans, it's all about trying to keep their favorite stars ahead of the competition. As one person wrote on Weibo, "Fans of other stars are inflating (traffic), how can we not?"
(Read more: Jay Chou's latest single was so popular that it literally broke a music streaming site)
The efforts by Chinese companies to clamp down on artificial traffic offers a cautionary tale for platforms like Instagram. As long as some sort of popularity metric exists, it will be difficult to stop people from trying to manipulate them.
Even though Weibo capped the number of share counts it shows, the number hasn't entirely disappeared.
And while iQiyi has hidden viewer numbers, it's replaced them with another metric: a "heat" index that takes into account a variety of factors, including video shares.
Besides, at the end of the day, people can still compare how many followers they have or how many people have left comments under their posts. For those who care, there's no end to the competition.
Adapted from an article first published in Abacus.
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