At South by Southwest Interactive last week, marketer Peter Shankman said “if you say you’re a social media expert, I’m going to check how many Twitter followers you have.” This is about as useful a metric as saying “if you say you’re a professional hockey player, I’m going to count how many hockey sticks you have.” It tells only a tiny fraction of the whole story.
Shankman’s comment got me wondering: how would Twitter be different if the service didn’t publish statistics about who you’re following and who’s following you? Because these numbers are public, we’re experiencing a kind of follower arms race, where heedless reciprocal following has become the norm and popularity and leader-board sites are de rigeur (I’m still working on getting my douchebag index into the nineties). One’s list of followers has become, for better or for worse, the new unweeded blogroll–messy, too long and polluted with hastily-exchanged links. This shouldn’t be a surprise: from box office revenue to Technorati ranking, if we can count it publicly, we will.
If our Twitter numbers were private, wouldn’t we be more selective about who we followed? Wouldn’t we focus on forming a conversational network based on the quality of people we followed, instead of the number of people who followed us? Wouldn’t we emphasize meaningful discussion over the “top seller” mentality that seems to pervade the tool?
It took me years to start obsessing about the web stats for my personal blog. I eventually learned to follow my friend Dave Olson’s advice to “fuck stats, make art”. Now I’m facing a similar grindstone with Twitter. The bloggy, social media world has always been a bit too much like high school for my liking. I thought we’d begun to grow out of that immaturity, but the tyranny of Twitter stats puts us right back in the sweaty locker room after grade eight gym class.
I was talking to my friend John Keyes about how I could reduce my compulsion to watch my Twitter stats. He was sympathetic, and whipped up a Greasemonkey script that simply hides the follower numbers from the tool’s web interface. It’s only as effective a mind hack as, say, setting your watch five minutes fast. However, it’s a little reminder to chill out and use Twitter the way I want to, instead of how the popularity-obsessed web demands that I do.