following and being followed

On Duolingo, friends can be “following” and/or they can be “followers”: in the language of graph theory, everyone’s friendship network is a digraph. That is, following someone is completely independent of being followed, which reflects the reality of human relationships, as in the lyric to Nature Boy (“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”) and the Song of Solomon (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine…”)

As of this moment, I follow 17 other Duolingo accounts — people whom I know in real life, some with more than one login. On the other hand, 190 Duolingo accounts follow me. I don’t mind that my account is public; as far as I know, all Duolingo accounts are public, so everyone can follow anyone else. “Friendship” in Duolingo is noncommittal and nonintrusive; for example, you can’t send personalized messages to friends. I think the only reason to define a friend on the platform is to monitor someone else’s language progress and encourage each other to use Duolingo more.

Why are complete strangers following me, especially when I don’t interact with them at all? On a spot check of other accounts, this heavily weighted ratio of followers-to-following (11 to 1) is unique in my Duolingo friend network.

One possibility is that I have posted very occasionally on the forums, and maybe people follow me because they like my questions and responses. But I am far from active on the platform in that way.

Another possibility is that my account appear near the top of the 121485 results when someone looks for a friend with the search term “Alba.” I do appear at the very top of my own search for “Alba” but that could easily be personalized. While I don’t know what factors into the sort algorithm for searches, I think I would rank high in terms of reasonable metrics such as exact character match (@Alba), account age (a very early adopter from almost exactly ten years ago, since 2022-03-31), number of followers (190), consistent activity (387 day streak),and total XP (132174). I also previously subscribed to Duolingo Plus, and maybe during those two years Duolingo bumped up my account on searches.

Because it’s impossible to stop someone from following you on the platform, and there’s hardly any reason to unfollow someone, the simple longevity of my account might also explain why I have accreted a relatively large number of followers.

A fourth possible explanation for my high follower-to-following ratio is the profile image I use:

William  Alba Duolingo

I chose the Statue of Liberty because I was born in New York City and had been brushing up my French when I joined Duolingo.

I’ve noticed a fair number of my followers are engaged in learning English. The Statue of Liberty is a widely recognized, highly positive cultural icon. This is a bold, eye-catching photo.

Visitors to the city gravitate to the statue. My nephew Benny stood on Liberty Island last week during spring break. I stared at the statue on my first ride on the Staten Island Ferry two winters ago, climbed to the windows of her crown as a teenager, and was fascinated as a child whenever we rode Circle Line.

With a broken shackle and chain at her feet, she represents freedom from slavery. Walking forward, she embodies progress. Thanks to Emma Lazarus’ poem, she has become a symbol to welcome immigrants, especially the dispossessed.

For these reasons, I suspect my profile image is the main reason others follow me on Duolingo. It is a small vote for the hope that the United States still values certain ideals and that, despite everything, this nation remains a steadfast beacon of liberty to the world.

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