ATwitter

Twitter’s #FF Was Born From a Bet — 5 Years Later, It’s Still Going Strong

Micah Baldwin tells the story of his Internet fame — from CNN interviews to Argentinian death threats.
Micah Baldwin (Twitter)

Micah Baldwin (Twitter)

In honor of it being the end of the week, we did an interview with the guy who gave rise to the Fridays we’ve all come to know and (maybe?) love: Micah Baldwin, the creator of Follow Fridays, or #FF.

Mr. Baldwin is a startup guy living in San Mateo, Ca., ten minutes south of San Francisco. He’s the owner of Graphic.ly, a company that works with publishers to help them navigate the digital world and distribute ebooks.

He’s pretty sure it all started in January 2009, when two of his friends were competing to see who’d be the first to reach 1,000 followers on Twitter. The loser had to take the winner out to dinner.

Mr. Baldwin, who already had a couple thousand followers at the time, figured he could use his Twitter prowess to help his friends out. “You should be able to recommend friends, and then people should go, ‘Oh, that’s a friend of Micah, of course I’ll follow them,” he thought at the time.

So he sent out a tweet recommending that his followers start following his two friends.

“Then one of my friends tweeted back to me and said, ‘You should make a hashtag for it’,” Mr. Baldwin said.

So he made up #followfriday, DM’d it to a few friends, asked them to retweet it, and then went off to work. It was 8 a.m.

“I got into work, and had to do a couple meetings until about 11 a.m.,” Mr. Baldwin said. “I went back to my desk, looked at Twitter, and literally everything had #followfriday in it.”

Using an analytics tool, Mr. Baldwin determined that by the end of the day, something like half of all tweets had #followfriday in it, he said.

“It was cool, I cant lie,” he said. “I thought it was really neat that something like that had exploded. It was more indicative of the fact that I had hit on a very specific thing – recommendations. That was a piece [of Twitter] that was missing. I thought that was it, that was cool, it was a one time shot.”

But the following Thursday, Mr. Baldwin started seeing #followfriday tweets from Europe.

“We started to see German tweets that had #followfriday in it, because they hit their Friday before us,” he said.

Then things got really crazy — Mr. Baldwin noticed Twitter wasn’t operating properly, because of the huge surge of #followfriday tweets.

“I couldn’t even open Twitter because everything had #followfriday in it,” Mr. Baldwin said. “The first Friday is was something like 400,000 #followfriday tweets, and the next Friday it doubled… From January to February it continued to grow. Every Friday it trended — it would start trending on Thursday.”

In March, Mr. Baldwin noticed that #followfriday stopped appearing on the trending list. He isn’t positive, but he thinks Twitter removed it from the list on purpose.

“I think it was actually crushing Twitter,” he said. “It was causing Twitter not to operate optimally. No one at Twitter told me this, but when you sit down and think about the things it potentially did, it made sense for them to stop the huge influx of #followfriday tweets every Friday, because it as a strain on the database.”

Still, the #followfriday tweets continued. Mr. Baldwin noted that every Friday, there would also be a fair number of tweets with messages like “Micah started this!” Soon, he had become an Internet celebrity.

“It went from friends competing over dinner to being interviewed by CNN,” he said.

His friend Erin even crowdfunded a documentary on Kickstarter called Follow Friday, wherein she traveled around the country on a quest to meet 140 people IRL that she only ever knew from Twitter.

He was also excited to see celebs like Snoop Dogg, Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jimmy Fallon using his hashtag.

But like any true celebrity, Mr. Baldwin also had his #h8ers.

“Apparently a bunch of people in Argentina really hated #followfriday, and were posting death threats on Twitter,” he said. “[They’d say], ‘We should all go to California and kill Micah.’ I’d put it into Google Translate and go, ‘Woah’.”

Five years after starting #followfriday, Mr. Baldwin says he still gets praise. When we spoke to him on the phone, Mr. Baldwin was at a midwestern startup accelerator, and he said he’d met people who were still excited about his remarkable social media achievement.

“I’m like a dinosaur that they’re uncovering,” he said. “Like they went to Jurassic Park and I’m a T-Rex.”

Follow Jordyn Taylor on Twitter or via RSS. jtaylor@observer.com