I read an article in last month’s WIRED that I meant to talk about here but kept forgetting to. It’s about how people’s idea of social networks is to grow them to epic proportions as a sign of their digital worth. Yet bigger isn’t always better online. Maybe you have more “followers” than your peers — real or virtual — but what is the quality of the interaction?
There may even be a reduction in conversation due to the sheer enormity of your network. WIRED scribe Clive Thomson explains it thusly:
Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. . . Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
I operate multiple social networks, a few of them professionally, most for the fun of it. (Actually, I find the professional ones pretty fun, too.) The official Twitter account of my job has 15,000 followers. I made that happen, and it feels pretty good. I do my best to keep the information I send out through that channel engaging and relevant (I work at a music policy think tank), and, judging from the number of re-tweets, people seem to like what I’m putting out there. On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of what I’d call “conversation.” I also operate a Twitter account for a certain dead writer from the turn of the last century, and he gets tons of interpersonal action. There’s a Contrarian Media account and one that’s just “me.” My personal Twitter has about 1,400 followers, most of whom I don’t engage with at all. I’d estimate the number of folks that I actually communicate and share information with to be about 50.
I also have Facebook accounts for many of the aforementioned.
Now, I don’t really sweat the social nets — I basically use them as a snark dissemination platform/news ticker. Conversation is just the icing. The Contrarian Media site concerns me, however. We get a solid amount of traffic, and I know what people are looking at and where they come from. But even though our hits keep going up and up, there isn’t as much back-and-forth as there was back when we launched nearly four years ago. (Although technically, we’ve been around for a bit longer than that, as we grew out of this blog that I started back in 2005.)
Now, I understand that microblogging has somewhat eaten away at the mystique of long-form posting — people want their information in briefer and faster bursts — but blogging doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the intentional community we’ve created hasn’t lost a bit of luster due to the perceived size of the enterprise. I can’t claim TMZ-level hits here, but we do pretty damn good. According to Clive, however, it’s us mid-size sites (re: not Daily Kos or TechCrunch) that have the most to worry about:
Blogs and Twitter and Facebook are, as Internet guru John Battelle puts it, “conversational media.” But when the conversation gets big enough, it shuts down. Not only do audiences feel estranged, the participants also start self-censoring. People who suddenly find themselves with really huge audiences often start writing more cautiously, like politicians.
When it comes to microfame, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. If someone’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, they’re one of the rare and straightforwardly famous folks online. Like a digital Oprah, they enjoy a massive audience that might even generate revenue. There’s no pretense of intimacy with their audience, so there’s no conversation to spoil. Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals. It’s the middle ground — when someone amasses, say, tens of thousands of followers — where the social contract of social media becomes murky.
There’s no doubt that sometimes I feel like I’m talking at people, rather than to them. But as a charming megalomaniac, that doesn’t bother me all that much. (Although I’m sure those who try to argue with me feel differently.) What gets me feeling awkward is that what we do here is informed by the interactions we have with our regular visitors. Without the inspiration that comes from conversation, it starts to feel somewhat pointless.
If you’re a regular reader (or even a lurker), I’d love to know what you think.