What’s so bad about follow spam?

I joined the herd of people signing up for Google+ this past week. I’m not as enamoured of the interface as everyone seems to be. They do seem to have taken more care with privacy and been better about allowing you to remove your data than Facebook; this isn’t really saying much. The main reason I signed up is everyone whose professional life involves knowing a lot about the internet is checking it out now too, which would be most of my social circle.

One thing I do like about Google+ is that it allows one-way relationships: you can follow someone who may choose not to follow you back. (Unlike Facebook, where “friendships” must be mutual. And like Twitter and identi.ca, except that you can say more than a sentence at a time.) Strangely enough, several people I don’t know have chosen to follow me. I have looked at some of their profiles, curious who they are: some are friends of friends, for example, and some are Wikipedians I might know better by a pseudonym. And some of them appear to be following masses of people indiscriminately, hoping to get some sort of social validation to bolster their marketing efforts when some sucker automatically follows back.

I hate follow spammers, because they take advantage of people like me.

I follow several people on social networking services whom I assume know nothing about me, because I think they have interesting things to say, and I don’t expect any sort of acknowledgement unless I actually say something directly to them. And sometimes not even then. I assume others do not expect any more of me when they follow me. (I get added by many Wikipedians I don’t know very well, and who probably know only a little about me. I can’t keep up with all of them, especially the ones who primarily write in languages I can’t read. I try to respond to people who contact me directly and hope no one is too offended that I’m not very attentive.)

Several people complained that the main annoyance of follow spam was getting the email notification of a new follower. But those don’t bother me–it’s easy enough to ignore or delete them. It is the social validation aspect that makes me angry. If everyone were genuine, I’d probably put everyone who followed me into a circle of some kind–sorting based on how interested I was in their posts, so that people I am not as interested in are put in the circle I read least often. I try to be pretty approachable and at least look at the streams of strangers who follow me, to see who they are and why they’re interested. My default assumption is that people who are interested in what I’m saying are probably people I would be happy to know. In places where the only way for people to be able to see and/or comment on your posts is to make the relationship mutual, I am inclined to follow almost everyone back.

I am open to new experiences. I seek out serendipity. And spammers want to take advantage of people like me.

Auto-following everyone back–if only to place total strangers into a “figure out who this is later” circle–has very little cost. But sorting the spammers from the genuinely interested strangers is much more costly. I’d like to give friendly strangers an acknowledgement that I saw them and am happy to have them join in my public conversations. I would like to kill the spammers with fire, or at least refuse to give them the pageviews and social validation they seek.

The main difficulty of the world where we’re overloaded with information is in filtering good from worthless, of allocating your attention to the things you want to see. And one major way you figure out what’s worth your attention is to see what others you trust and respect are paying their attention to. But the spammers provide no value to me or my social circle–they’re trying to divert our attention from the things we want to see, instead bringing it to things we wouldn’t go near unless we were fooled into it. One is a nuisance. Thousands are a problem.

(Prompted by Evan Prodromou‘s posts on the topic.)