March 01, 2010

The Followers Game Is So 2008. Time for New Metrics.

Any time one's statistics can be counted and ranked against peers online, the inevitable next steps include leaderboards and gaming. Humans have this innate sense of need to be ahead of all others, to measure themselves, and deliver some level of self-assigned worth thanks to what are questionably valuable statistics. While it is said by some that there is real value to having an open, random, network, we have all seen bot-driven impersonal behavior on many networks as people try to game the system for maximum follower counts. It would be harmless were it not for many third parties using these inflated follower counts as one element of assigning value to an individual.

For the many of us who roll our eyes at Twitter accounts with followers well beyond 20,000 or 50,000, who seemingly spout nonsense interspersed with advertisements, or those of us who recognize million-plus accounts were the product of the recently semi-retired suggested user list, there are the frequent media swoons over people's following numbers, used to verify one's credibility.

I Stopped Growing My Followers. Am I Less Relevant?

It's this seeming need to count and extend one's network further and further in a never-ending for self-validation that might have Facebook deciding to never open up beyond 5,000 connections, avoiding the faux arms race, and why you now see complete unknowns gaming Google Buzz by following tens of thousands of accounts in hopes that a fraction of the number follow back, pushing them up the rudimentary leaderboards that exist today.

Ask any active social media user or blogger their follower statistics or RSS subscribers, or even their usual page views per day or month, and they will know within 3-5%. Anybody who says they don't know or don't check is probably lying. They might modestly tell you that one number is "too high" because of one service or another, or they aren't chasing numbers, but they know because it's one way to measure success.

Of These "Top" Buzzers, Which Belongs? All of Them?

Breaking through 1,000 subscribers on this blog was a big deal for me. So was rapidly getting to 2,000 and eventually 5,000. Now, I glance and note any wide variance in the number as being due to one service or another missing each other on the back end. On Twitter, my numbers don't go up or down much, especially after I stopped using autofollow, slowing growth dramatically. So watching the newest network, Buzz, has been interesting - the first real valuable network to come along in a while.

Even though the Google team considered not displaying followers and following counts in Buzz, they eventually opted to display. Now, sites like Buzz Top not only show the same top tech enthusiasts you have seen on other networks, but scores of unknowns who could be following as many as 10,000 to more than 36,000 different accounts, hoping their message can reach more people.

I promise you that even the 250 I follow in Buzz is enough, just like I've decided following about 1,400 in Twitter is enough for how I want to use the service today. There is no question that anybody following more than a few thousand in Buzz is missing out on most of the updates, yet the allure still exists.

We have got to achieve more accurate ratings of influence that determine value. There is no question that value of an individual varies widely from one person's point of view to another, but I've just about had it with follower numbers. How would social networks be improved if we just hid them away entirely, and stopped looking at growth or relative sizes? My value is still the same, in terms of quality, whether I have an audience of 2,000 or 20,000, especially if I have the right people. Buzz had a chance to take a high road with putting the numbers game aside, but we're seeing the games begin already. I wonder what new network will be the first to start focusing on quality and less on quantity.

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