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?
Grade Eight Gym Class
It took me years to start obsessing about the web stats for this site. 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. 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.
UPDATE: British writer and comedian Dave Gorman has a great post that touches on a similar topic:
But yesterday I had two people contact me to tell me that I was rude for not following them. How not-following someone can be rude is quite beyond me. So I asked. And their point was that they were following me and that it was therefore only polite for me to follow them back because unless I did that I wasn’t being interactive.
Which seems to me to be a false definition of what interactivity really is. In what way would clicking a button to say I was following someone be actually interacting with them? At the moment I follow between 200 and 300 people. When I log on I normally find there are between 10 and 20 posts for me to look at from the last 5 minutes of activity. But I’m followed by over 20,000 people. If I followed all of them, there would be a hundred times as many recent posts to review. There would be no way of me actually reading – or even meaningfully scanning – 1000 to 2000 posts every 5 minutes.
I especially like his conclusion:
The difference between following someone and replying to them is the difference between stopping to chat with someone in the street or giving them a badge declaring that you know them. One is actual interaction. The other is just something you can show your friends.