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Want to sell a bad book? Tap into Twitter's network of "influencers"

How did a 19-year-old self-published author's debut novel become a viral sensation?

Ashton is undeniably handsome. His striking blue eyes stare at you from under bushy, dark eyebrows in his Twitter profile picture, and he has finished off the whole look by cheekily biting his bottom lip. He is a teenage heartthrob, followed mostly by young girls on the social network, but like most teenage boys he only has one thing on his mind.

All Ashton cares about is promoting the digital sales of the young adult romance novel Just Friends by Billy Taylor.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” wrote Ashton on 25 Jan, followed by a crying and heart emoji. Two days earlier, on 23 Jan, he said the same. The thought also appeared to be on his mind on 22, 20, 18, and 16 Jan. For months, Ashton has been posting the same tweet – and getting nearly a thousand retweets each time – about a 19-year-old author from Sheffield’s self-published book.

Via @ashtontayz

You don’t need to have been on the internet for a long time to realise that Ashton isn’t real. His profile was designed by marketers to promote various products, and the tweets are then retweeted by prominent Twitter accounts in order to appear popular. “It makes the tweet looks more natural and from an 'actual' person,” explains Jason Wong, a 19-year-old internet entrepreneur, who used this account and these methods – known as “influencer marketing” – to promote his book The Holy Méme Bible. Despite being fundamentally fake however, Ashton’s tweets – and those of similar accounts (here, here, and here) – reach millions of real people.

***

“I bought ‘Just Friends’ based on an excerpt of the book that gained a lot of attention within the Twitter community,” Sofia Aguilar, a 17-year-old student from the United States, tells me. “Instead of reading the beautiful story that I had been promised, I instead read a book that was poorly written, unedited, and lacking in any complexity in the character, plot, and dialogue aspects.

“The excerpt that had first attracted me to ‘Just Friends’ may have been the only gem of the story, and as such, I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

Aguilar isn’t alone. The most recent reviews of the book on Goodreads paint a picture of hundreds of misled teen girls. “I was expecting a bit more from this book. It's a pretty big deal on Twitter,” writes Catherine, who rated it two stars; “Very disappointed with this book. After noticing a lot of people talk about this book on social media I decided to purchase it for my summer holiday,” says Amy (one star); Sage, who gave the book two stars, writes: “I am writing this because I had been blasted with advertisements regarding this book and I thought alright fine let me give it a go… I had high hopes but there were so many mistakes in grammar … just warning you as someone who never writes reviews and has read hella books - it is not worth the money.”

***

It is not just the book that is extraordinarily popular on Twitter. Pictures of the author Billy Taylor holding the book and his puppy garner thousands of shares on the site. While the influencer accounts create an artificial reaction, there are many real people who go on to share the posts once they appear on their timeline. Taylor undoubtedly has thousands of real fans (the book was once featured on the Apple iBooks homepage and an audit of his account proves that almost none of his followers are fake), but that doesn’t change the fact that many teenagers feel duped.

I reach out to Taylor multiple times over a few weeks, and when he finally replied he said he was not interested in speaking with me. It is not apparent whether he himself organised for his book to be promoted by influencer accounts (such as @BeFitWorld, which as 308,000 followers, @DeepxSnaps which has 302,000, or @TheLifeDiaries which as 3.54 million) or whether someone else was at work. Even if he did, it is also not apparent whether he paid for this service. Many of these accounts have since unretweeted their shares of these promotional posts, but the fact they are mentioned in the replies reveals that they initially shared a post. Wong, who used many similar accounts to promote his book, sheds light on how it works.

“Influencer marketing is essentially making something appear more popular than what it already is,” he says. “[Taylor] probably won't want to give out too much info due to the nature of the business.” Wong explains that he reached out to influencers one by one via his own marketing firm and offered them “compensation” to share his tweets. He would compose a tweet, send it to influencers, and pay them based on the results.

“I framed all the posts in a way that seemed organic and easy to share. That way, the tweets can reach a broader audience without paying for it.”

Wong had great success with these methods and claims that he earned $200,000 (£160,600) in three weeks selling his "meme bible". There seem to be no complaints about the book online. But when people end up disappointed, as with Taylor’s book, this type of marketing does raise ethical questions. There is also another, more pressing question. Is all of this legal?

***

Perhaps the most well-known social media marketing company is Social Chain. It had nothing to do with Taylor’s book, but manages hundreds of popular Twitter accounts which it uses to force things to “Trend” on the site. According to Buzzfeed, the company charges brands up to £280,000 to advertise via its influencers.

“With a vast network of social communities and a reach of around 305 million, we work with huge global brands such as Apple Music and Disney to deliver creative campaigns and can get any topic trending in under 17 minutes,” Michael Martin, head of the Social Chain-owned Twitter account Student Problems, tells the New Statesman.

Since 2014, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have cracked down on internet influencers when they ruled that YouTubers had to be “up front and clear” when advertising a product. In practical terms, this means hashtags like #ad (advertisement) and #spon (sponsored) are now used across social media. A spokesperson for the ASA tells me: “If a social media influencer is paid to promote a product or service and the advertiser has control over the message then it should be clearly labelled as an ad.”

The use of “#ad” can therefore stop teenagers being misled by influencer marketing. Things get more complicated, however, if a brand or individual isn’t paying influencers to write a tweet, but simply to retweet one.

“The act of paying someone to retweet but having no control over the message means that it’s unlikely to be classed as advertising under our rules,” says the ASA spokesperson, “[But] under consumer protection legislation and a requirement of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) who have undertaken work in this area, it should still probably be labelled as being a paid promotion.”

The ASA have worked with Social Chain to help them understand and enforce these rules, and the CMA ruled in August that it – and other similar networks – must clearly identify its paid-for advertisements.

“It is our view that everyone involved in online endorsements is responsible for ensuring that paid promotions are clearly labelled or identified,” the CMA wrote in their “open letter to marketing departments” last year. “This content is read by consumers, who may rely on the information to inform their purchasing decisions. If it is not correctly labelled or identified, consumers may be misled into thinking it represents the author’s genuine opinion when a business has in fact paid to influence the content.

“Misleading readers or viewers falls foul of consumer protection law and could result in enforcement by either the CMA or Trading Standards Services, which may lead to civil and/or criminal action.”

***

It is not apparent whether Billy Taylor was involved in the promotion of his book via social influencer networks, or whether any laws were breached in these promotions, which may not have been paid for. It is clear, however, that Twitter influencers have misled teens across the social network by making the book seem artificially popular. A recent study by Stanford University revealed that 82 percent of students couldn't distinguish between a sponsored post and an actual news article. It seems vastly unfair that when teenagers log into their social media accounts, they have to navigate an online world where they will be tricked out of what little money they have. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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