by Lauren Fisher in Social Media
I’ve touched on this subject in recent posts but I thought it was time to write a dedicated post about the popularity game that’s currently going on through the internet, and more specifically social media. This post may seem negative and I just want to make it clear that I absolutely recognise all the benefits of social media – how it’s opened up communities and dialogues and provided companies with a completely new way to do business, one that’s more genuine and honest than anything that’s gone before. I really think I’m working in one of the most interesting communication channels there has ever been. But there is also a downside to social media, and that’s how it’s made us focus on popularity and numbers. And it feels quite unnatural.
To explain very simply why I believe the internet has become a popularity game, is to look at all the data and numbers that’s now publicly visible to practically anyone. You can see someone’s Twitter followers vs how many they’re following, Facebook friends, number of comments on a blog post, number of retweets, replies in a forum thread and many other metrics. And however much we like to admit that we don’t care about numbers, it can’t help but set a level of pre-judgement. If you get followed by someone with 100,000 followers and they’re only following 100, you’ll feel pretty special and the chances are you’ll give them some of your time. If you come across a blog post with 200 retweets, you’ll probably spend more time reading it than you would have otherwise, and if that seems like a constant pattern in their blog, you’ll probably subscribe. There are so many numbers out there that can’t help but have an effect on the actions we take and how much of an effort we go to engage with someone. And biased as I like to be, I don’t believe anyone that says they’re not influenced by big numbers on some level, even if it’s not the determining factor to follow, read, retweet etc..
I find this quite unnatural and still haven’t quite got used to the fact that everyone gets to basically see how popular I am on online. It seems to recycle the secondary school popularity game. As you get older popularity becomes less and less important, but with social media it brings it back again. Getting a retweet from the Mike Butchers of this world has the effect of almost validating us online and makes you realise just what a funny game it is.
Competing for numbers
The knock-on effect of this popularity contest is also seen with companies that use social channels to market themselves or build relationships with their customers. There is a huge rush for numbers on a business’ Facebook page or Twitter account. Previously you could estimate certain figures about your competitors such as site traffic etc.. but now companies are given an easy metric to compare with their competitors. It’s a big problem for some organisations if their competitors have more followers or Likes – so the race starts to build the numbers. But this race for numbers isn’t only confined to companies. I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s seen people tweet “only 2 more followers til I hit 1,000″ and so on. I’ve never really understood this, other than it seems people are asking for more followers to hit a landmark on their account. Such odd behaviour is borne of the fact that we can now put some sort of metric on how popular we are (given that this just fits one channel). And if you don’t think it’s odd, imagine the same scenario only you send a text to everyone on your phone to tell them you’ve nearly got 50 friends.
The above might seem extreme, and yes, announcing how many friends you’ve got isn’t exactly the same as announcing how many people are following you on Twitter, but it’s not a million miles apart.
When the numbers lie
An unfortunate side effect of our online communities being visible to everyone is that people try to game the system, in the belief that numbers are the be-all and end-all. It doesn’t take much to spot someone that’s manipulated their numbers on Twitter. They follow hardly anyone, rarely tweet, their tweets get no interaction yet they have 150,000 followers. The fact is that this really doesn’t mean anything. Having that number next to your Twitter account doesn’t mean that a genuine person is more likely to follow you, nor does it have any real impact to your business if they’re not genuine, engaged followers. Yet many see the number as the thing to aim for. This is one of the most telling aspects of the social media popularity game.
There’s also a tendency to be wowed by the numbers around someone’s community as opposed to the content itself or how engaged they are. Unfortunately not enough companies are satisfied with a community that’s responsive, recommends content and effectively starts to communicate your brand for you. At the end of the day there’s someone higher up in the organisation that needs to see a big number, so you get sidetracked into chasing it.
The internet is not a democracy
Because social media leads into popularity, I don’t think you can really argue that the internet is a democracy, yet. If a company is tweeted by someone with a substantial number of followers, or they receive a comment on a post that gets regular interaction and people sharing the content, then they’re probably going to listen to that person more. The one who can shout the loudest gets noticed more, when others might not have figured out how to get their voice heard. It’s certainly changed things substantially and given more power to people that invest their time in creating content and growing communities, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is involved.
As long as we continue to see the numbers in social media, this will have a massive effect on how we view other individuals online and on how businesses use it. We’re not used to seeing this about someone and so it can’t help but set a level of precedent when you encounter new people or blogs online. I’m sure there will be many that disagree with me but I personally find it a fascinating phenomenon that we’re able to see so much about someone online and the size and engagement of their community. I’d still like followed/following numbers to be hidden on Twitter but I might be on my own on that one