Friday, February 5, 2010

Degrees of Obscurity

I was reading an essay in Wired Magazine where Clive Thompson was discussing the pitfalls of becoming too popular on a social networking site like Twitter. The gist of the argument was that once a certain threshold of ten thousand or so followers is reached, the two-way conversation and interactivity of the network ceases as participants begin to see themselves as anonymous faces in the crowd rather than active members of a community.

My first thought on reading this was to wonder how the people taking part could tell the difference between a virtual community of 1,000 and one of 10,0000 if a single person is generating the original content. Ie., person X tweets, audience member Y considers posting a reponse. Why would it matter to Y if there were 100 people reading Y's reply versus 10,000?

I get that in front of a real crowd, there would be some anxiety. But you don't have that visceral experience with the other followers.

The other thing that threw me was the idea that a virtual community of several thousand could have "intimate" connections with each other. What? That's ridiculous. At best that community can fragment into a few tight cliques of a hundred or so each who then interact with each other.

So perhaps my confusion comes mainly from the assertion that the relationships break down starting at 10,000 or so instead of breaking down at a much lower number, say 1,000.

The line that really jumped out at me in the essay was this one: "Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals."

I read that and just blinked in amazement. If I chatted with all my pals, I could maybe get to 20.

Ironically, the whole point of the post was to celebrate the value of small group dynamics and relative obscurity, noting how they can inspire creativity, honesty, and meaningful conversations among members. It's just that what Clive Thompson considers small and what I consider small differ by an order of magnitude.

I guess I am dramatically obscure.

More and more, my interactions on the Internet leave me feeling isolated and small. I clearly had a kernel of this impression in me from the beginning, as seen from the title I chose.

I wonder if the first person who realized that all the stars in the night sky were suns with possible worlds orbiting them felt the same way.


Mikael Behrens said...

I think you (and I) are normally obscure.

I've been annoyed by this kind of thing before. Internet "celebrities" of various sorts often have biased or distorted views of social networks based on having legions of followers because of their broad exposure and popularity.

Doug said...

I like the normally obscure comment, Mikael.

I also feel a disconnect with people who are famous for being somebody rather than for accomplishing anything. Reality TV "stars" are the worst examples of this sort of thing.

Mikael Behrens said...

The example I was thinking of was Leo Laporte, who does all kinds of (usually) tech-related podcasts. He once went on about Twitter being such a great resource. He could post a question and get answers very quickly from his friends.

Well, it turns out his "friends" are his 163,247 followers who are mostly tech-minded fans of his podcasts.

Twitter is not a similar "resource" for the likes of me. :)

But it is a decent and fun way of getting a short word out to a few interested people, and keeping track of a what a few others are doing.