The Social Numbers-Driven Pissing Contest

07 July, 2013 10:03PM · 4 minute read

Interpersonally, connections can have great value. Whilst not a requirement they make life more interesting, easier (in some respects) and sometimes more enjoyable. In the real world such social interaction is scrutinised by very few and values aren’t usually attributed so readily and perhaps as hastily as in online social networks. The measure of ones value for many younger people in the developed world today is based on the number of “Friends” they have on Facebook, “Followers” on Twitter and for some professionals, even “Connections” on LinkedIn. Ten years ago these services didn’t exist but the problem still existed: the supposition that having many people interested in you and what you say and do was considered a desirable trait. Whereas in the past such judgements were kept solely to those that knew you in some way directly (or perhaps indirectly) today however such connections (or perhaps lack thereof) are highly visible for anyone in the world to see and judge.

Twitter is an excellent example of the problem and is the primary topic considered here. On Twitter, on one occasion I insulted and blocked by a total stranger for making a single comment that wasn’t directed at him. His parting tweet before blocking me made reference to my small number of Twitter followers at the time as though it was an insult. Another example for those with many followers is asking inane questions to the “hive mind” and getting prompt responses (Google is broken?) Recently I decided to test an idea: Create a new Twitter account and without using any third-party tools to gain followers and tweeting no more than once per day, measure how long it took to equal my follower count for my @johnchidgey Twitter account that I had held for over 3 years. I achieved this result in only 22 days with minimal effort. Conceivably had I continued I could have added still more followers until I reached whatever arbitrary amount I deemed suitable. In addition to this I unfollowed every person on that account, stopped tweeting and waited three months to see what would happen. I had lost only 3% of my followers in that time despite my inactivity. I’m not spelling this one out - draw your own conclusion.

The reasons people follow others are many and varied, but the moment when people “switch off” reading your messages is impossible to know for certain: we can not tell when someone is reading our timelines, only when they are themselves feeding into the system by tweeting. Simply tweeting and responding specifically to others tweets is the most positive proof of interest and engagement and I’ve observed that a great many people with large follower counts on Twitter start out by responding to a great many of their followers interactions, however in time the burden of doing so becomes too great for the majority of them and they significantly reduce the number of people that they respond to, if any at all.

Translate this experience to a room of people in the real world. If you’re talking to the room and get no reaction from people visibly, one would expect you wouldn’t really talk to them again but would only speak to those that paid attention. Unfortunately on Twitter on there is no way to tell if they are listening or not. If we choose the default position as one where those who don’t respond directly on Twitter are truly not interested in responding then you can cut your true follower counts significantly.

The next time you think your follower/friend/connection count is impressive (or perhaps not impressive enough) keep in mind that it’s only those that you interact with and who interact with you that have any real equivalence in the real world. The egotists that read this will think I’m only saying this because I don’t have 1000+ followers¬†(choose your own arbitrary number), but the truth is I love my followers that interact with me and they’re the ones that matter most to me. That’s where social networking tools become an extension of our lives and not some social-ego-numbers-driven pissing contest.