Origin of the Species: The Evolution of the 'Shout Out'

To understand where ‘shoutout’ and ‘follower’ came from, you have to go way, way, back. So let’s start with that practically ancient (2006) social media platform -Twitter.

Twitter was one of the first social media platforms to employ the term followers.  This term, of course, refers to the number of people who have clicked the “follow” button on your profile and who are presumably interested in reading what you have to say – 140 characters at a time. But the thing with Twitter is, if you don’t have any followers to read your tweets, it’s pretty well the equivalent of talking to your cat only to realize it’s not even in the room. #theworst #embarrassing #needmorefollowers

 So the question becomes “how does one acquire followers???”

The answer is two-fold. First, you need to be a) interesting b) funny c) intelligent or d) political - or better yet - any combination of the aforementioned attributes.  Second, you have to deliver on the “social” part of social media and take the time to interact with fellow users. This is achieved through tweeting “@” someone, replying to another person’s tweet, or simply mentioning another user in your own tweet. Interacting with other users and explicitly mentioning them expands your audience and gets you noticed. But more importantly, this method of interacting with others has evolved (from the virtually Precambrian 2006 era) and is now commonly referred to as a “shoutout”.  Name dropping or mentioning a user or friend on a social media platform has been part of the social media scene since the early days of MSN (known as the pre-Twitterian era) and many of these nods are inconsequential and part of the ebb and flow of being social online. In some cases it can be used as a way to bring friends or colleagues into an online conversation that would benefit from their opinion or expertise - less of a shout out and more of a “so what do you think?”

Buying and Selling 'Shout Outs'

However, the fame seeking generation has taken the shoutout to new heights. In its current incarnation, the shoutout is a tool, a lubricant, a virtual currency – the sole purpose of which is to build popularity.

 Indeed, for digital fame-seekers a shoutout from the right person (as in- someone with a bajillion followers) can be a coveted digital prize and can potentially help your online popularity skyrocket.  In fact, in the fame-seeking community, it’s considered a privilege to receive one from a popular user.

 For some entrepreneurial youth, the “shoutout” has become a type of online currency, and is often exchanged for actual currency in real life. A shoutout from a popular youtuber, or a half-a-million-followers instagram “celeb” will build you a following, but it may also cost you a pretty penny (popular onliners/instafamers are paid for a shoutout with gifts, cash, giftcards). To wit: if you’re a fame wannabe – you’ll have to pay for shoutouts. If you’re a digital instafamer – you’ll be charging for a mention.

 While Twitter was an early player, many other social media sites have gained traction in the world of followers and shoutouts. On Instagram – a photo and video-sharing platform – the shoutout is king, and it’s integral to gaining followers. Here you can have upwards of a few thousand followers just for having a good haircut or managing to escape the world of teenage acne. Seriously. More likely, it’s a good haircut combined with some killer abs for boys, or some long hair and some serious bikini or underwear action for girls. Shoutouts are critical to building and maintaining your manufactured followers and fame – but wait – there’s more!

Shout Outs + Hashtags = Attention(ish)

Hashtags are another kind of amplification device for social platforms like Instagram.

With the help of hashtags, youth are now able to market themselves and rake in the “likes” based on a few key phrases.

 Here’s how it works: Take a picture, choose a filter, add a caption and follow it up with a few hashtags like #longhairdontcare #tattoo #ootd #followforfollow or #selfie and just like that your picture is online and searchable by all those key phrases. And not only that, if a friend presses the heart icon or ‘like’ button below your photo, this action will show up in the news feed (for example Facebook) of all their followers notifying them they liked your image. Essentially the more people who like your photo, the greater potential for other users to see it, like it, and follow you. The more followers you have, the more likes you will receive. And for a generation where likes are virtual stamps of approval, gaining followers is paramount.

 So you see it all started with a “follow” button on Twitter almost a decade ago. Now followers, likes, shoutouts, hashtags, you can’t have one without the other.