Everybody’s got advice on what Twitter needs to do at its current crossroads. The answer might lie in revisiting the moment they first broke geeks’ hearts.
I took it as a bad sign that Will.I.Am was hanging around backstage at a conference for software developers.
It was hard to understand why nobody’s favorite rapper was in the building, since he had expressed no particular interest in software engineering prior to that moment. To be fair, Will.I.Am’s interest in technology has become clearer in recent years; he recently put out a smartwatch called PULS, which is a good alternative to the Apple Watch for people who prefer a smartwatch that doesn’t work. But back in 2010, Am’s inexplicable presence at a technology conference was a good indicator that things were changing in a way that didn’t necessarily favor the folks who were there to hear stories about Apple apps, not apl.de.ap.
We were at Twitter’s first developer conference, an event called Chirp. And indeed, Will.I.Am’s armchair interview was just one of a few clear indications that Twitter really wasn’t just for geeks anymore. Instead, Twitter had suddenly blossomed into a company that aspired to be a player in media and entertainment and advertising, with its eye focused on becoming the giant, publicly-traded company it is today. Twitter began to take its first tentative steps away from its geeky roots, which set the stage for a nerd backlash that still hasn’t fully abated.
But the business types whom Twitter had been courting as its new BFFs turned out to be just as mercurial as the early geeks once the company finally did go public. Investors and pundits have taken issue with everything from the company’s CEO to its often-desultory product direction to its lackluster growth in the number of active users logging into the service each month. This led to a precipitous recent drop in its share price, the delivery of a 360-tweet-long diagnosis of the company’s ailments from shareholder/cheerleader Chris Sacca, and culminated in today’s announcement that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is stepping down from his position.
While the Internet has never shied away from offering unsolicited advice to Twitter’s leadership, it has perhaps never faced such impassioned arguments about how the company can get its mojo back from some of its closest supporters. While many businesses would envy the fact that Twitter has pretty huge revenues and a user base that is enormous in comparison to almost anything except Facebook, it’s become conventional wisdom that the company needs to work to find its bearings again.
And oddly, getting Twitter back on track may mean taking another look at one small bit of news that got overshadowed by a Black Eyed Pea on that day five years ago.
Let’s Get It Started
In the spring of 2010, Twitter was just graduating from being the hottest startup in tech to being a genuine cultural phenomenon. Chirp was the company’s first big conference, a glitzy coming-out for the company and its leaders. Advertised as its “first annual” event (there have been none since), Chirp showed that Twitter was a big enough institution to be able to command the attention of a theater full of geeks and press. I found myself there as a sort of legacy admission, thanks to the fact that I’d been working on building some apps on top of Twitter’s platform, and had known the founders of the company back when they were just ordinary geeks.
Twitter’s spate of announcements at Chirp included big news like Dick Costolo announcing the company’s first real foray into offering advertising. But within the tech industry, the real headlines started the night before with a low-key announcement that Twitter would be buying or making its own Twitter-branded apps for smartphones. (As absurd as it seems now, until that point, searching for “Twitter” on most devices wouldn’t yield a Twitter app that you could just use to read or post tweets. Instead, a confusing array of Twitter “clients” offered a selection of blue bird icons and terrible portmanteau names beginning with “tw-”.) At Chirp, Twitter made clear it would be offering its own, official app, just like Facebook and all the other popular services.
Then-CEO of Twitter Evan Williams at Chirp, explaining the biggest challenge facing Twitter as a company. (Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid)
The announcement of Twitter’s first-party mobile apps, coming just on the eve of Chirp’s start, rankled some of the most influential developers in the crowd, despite the obvious logic of the company’s rationale. These developers were independent coders who now faced the challenge of competing with the very company whose service made their products possible. From the standpoint of the market, or of regular users, Twitter was right to dismiss the complaints of these developers at the time. Twitter’s decision to make its own client apps did yield a significant simplification of the experience for normal users, and set the stage for the company to be able to display ads on the service, which might have been impossible through third-party client apps.
But unfortunately, this dismissal of developer concerns, however legitimate, would leave a lasting mark on the company’s relationship with the geeks who had first embraced the service. Even though the vast majority of programmers who built tools on top of Twitter weren’t making client apps, the mood of the entire developer community was led by those who were. And once the developers got upset, their disgruntlement informed the attitudes of the entire early-adopter tech community. Later announcements to these same geek audiences would be plagued by vague messages, unclear goals, or accurate communication of actual bad decisions on the company’s part. All of this merely confirmed the suspicion of many developers that Twitter didn’t love them anymore. For nerds, Chirp could be seen in retrospect as marking the official end of Twitter’s Good Old Days.
Where is the love?
Twitter’s struggle to win over investors is mostly due to the fact that most folks on Wall Street don’t really have a nuanced view of how social networking and social media platforms work. The market wants metrics, but picks and chooses which metrics they care about pretty arbitrarily, based on the whims of not-exactly-Zuckerberg pundits like Jim Cramer, or by looking at the numbers of other services like Facebook’s much-vaunted Monthly Active User (MAU) count — the number of people who log in to use the service each month.
The thing is, MAU numbers are a pretty arbitrary measure of the utility of a media-based service like Twitter. Google’s investor briefings almost never ask about how many YouTube users are logged in each month — they care about how many videos are watched, and how many ads are seen, and maybe they care a little about the fact that YouTube is the second most popular search engine on the Internet after Google itself.
By contrast, relatively few users go to Facebook to do a search on a news story or to find a particular video. And being measured against Facebook really only makes sense if there’s a zero-sum game where people are replacing one service with another. For example, in the photo-sharing realm, Flickr’s lead a decade ago has been almost completely supplanted by Instagram’s dominance today. In that context, a user-for-user comparison makes sense.
But when Anita Baker and Cheryl Lynn have beef on Twitter, it’s only on Twitter. And a ton of people are going to read about it by seeing their tweets embedded on a blog or news site, just like they discover YouTube videos that are embedded on those same sites. Whether they’re logged in to the service or not is irrelevant. (The fact that no ads are displayed along with those embedded tweets certainly is relevant.)
So what about some non-MAU metrics? Would that appease? What about shifting the conversation entirely? Other companies have been able to broaden focus from their ad-based businesses by getting into nascent markets that hold a lot of promise. This is where we encounter things like wearable 3D goggles and smartwatches, but R&D-intensive hardware folly is generally the domain of much bigger (and richer) tech titans like Apple and Microsoft and Google. And, uh, Will.I.Am.
When Will.I.Am DJed the afterparty for Twitter’s Chirp conference, he literally followed Don’t Stop Believin’ with Sweet Child o’ Mine, which is hard to read as anything but contempt for the conference’s attendees.
I Gotta Feeling
The funny thing about many developers being convinced that Twitter doesn’t care about them is that it’s pretty clear that Twitter is better to its developers than almost any other social networking or social media company. I was at Chirp because I’d helped built a tool that relied on Twitter’s data, not as a client app but for analyzing and understanding a user’s activity on the service.
Lots of other companies went that route, too—with a number of them selling for hundreds of millions of dollars as “enterprise analytics services”, and many more getting lots of funding for the apps they’d built on top of Twitter. That’s a striking contrast to the ecosystem around, say, Instagram or Pinterest, which have almost no similar success stories. In fact, if we look at the landscape of major social networks or messaging applications that developers could have relied upon in the years since Chirp, a striking pattern emerges:
Google: They launched Google Buzz (hey, remember that one?) and then mercy killed it a few years later. They’re about to do the same thing with Google+. There has never been a meaningful client app for Google+ from any developers outside of Google.
Instagram: There are a few third-party tools that do specific tasks like regramming images or making collages, and some reading apps for platforms like iPad where Instagram was late. Still, Instagram hasn’t really spawned many successful full-featured client apps. A handful of analytics apps exist, but none of them have gotten that huge.
Tumblr: The few attempts at building client apps or services have generally been stymied by the company. Almost none of the analytics services built for Tumblr have been very successful.
LinkedIn: There used to be a few ways to build apps and services around LinkedIn, but almost all of them were shut down over the past year.
Pinterest: The company promised an interface for developers for years, but has only shipped a limited release of some tools for brands to be able to interact with the service. There are no Pinterest client apps.
Snapchat: Pretty much nothing.
WhatsApp: Same deal, you take what they give you.
Facebook: They’re not too bad, providing access to a lot of useful data, but recent privacy improvements for users have meant fewer features for developers that were relying on previously-accessible data.
The truth of it is, when compared to other social networking companies, Twitter ends up looking like one of the most developer-friendly big platforms.
As a developer trying to build on top of all of these services, most of the ones that were of the same vintage as Twitter screwed us. The newer ones don’t care about third-party developers at all. None of these companies have ever cared about enabling developers to make a client app. Yet none of them has earned the same scorn or derision from developers as Twitter has.
This may be changing a bit, as we see a generational split amongst developers, with newer coders unaware of Twitter’s polarizing past. Indeed, Twitter’s recently made available a whole new suite of developer tools to simplify everything from displaying ads to keeping track of what’s making a mobile application crash on your phone. It’s still early, but every indication is that these new developer tools are already becoming popular, and that the developer services that Twitter acquired haven’t lost any credibility by becoming part of the company’s portfolio.
Twitter's Fabric is already the No. 2 mobile analytics SDK for iOS. http://t.co/HrrmQmBdJh (select itunes and analytics)
Enough years have passed that some of the older disgruntled developers may either have mellowed over time, or simply may not be relevant in shaping community opinion anymore. It’s actually possible that Twitter has another chance to make its core platform appealing to developers again, if it can find the right tools to offer them.
Scream & Shout
If we go back to that day in 2010, we can find out exactly what kind of things excited Twitter’s first wave of developers.
The start of the Chirp conference was a flurry of speeches from top execs, and of course the headlining Will.I.Am appearance. But by afternoon, the splashier news had passed, and it was time to get down to nuts-and-bolts developer conversations. The highlight for coders was a preview of an upcoming developer feature that seemed incredibly promising: Annotations. This nerdy new capability promised that developers would be able to pack more information into each tweet.
Annotations promised to upgrade tweets from being a 140-character postcard to being a 140-character message written on the outside of an envelope. What was inside the envelope? Whatever a developer could imagine.
At the time, this idea for Annotations was radical. Twitter’s core service had only just begun to stop displaying the fail whale, a whimsical and all-too-common illustration that popped up whenever the service was too overloaded to respond. To imaging going from not just being able to deliver tweets in realtime to anyone in the world, but to delivering almost any message in realtime to anyone in the world was a shocking leap forward.
And Twitter Annotations too. That's pretty exciting. I've been wondering about Twitter as a transport for non-social information for a while
Even some of the more sober analyses of Annotations saw the potential for Twitter to be transformed as a service. And the excitement over the feature was clearly justified — many of the ideas that developers immediately suggested for Annotations, such as including photos or videos in tweets, have become indispensable parts of the platform’s current success.
Even Twitter’s most interesting newer features, like the “cards” in tweets that show excerpts and thumbnails of linked stories, or the experimental “buy” button that the company has been testing to enable e-commerce, are all things that Annotations had promised to make possible years ago. These capabilities were hinted at in the first reviews of the feature written back in 2010.
But more exciting than the ability to add new little buttons or links within Twitter is what Annotations could enable outside of Twitter. But that potential was never discovered, because the company soon stopped talking about the upcoming feature, and eventually abandoned the effort altogether without even so much as a tweet marking its demise.
One of the fastest growing categories in consumer technology these days are smart devices, which take ordinary household items and connect them to the internet. Each one usually comes with its own app. One app will tell you when your smart lightbulb is going to burn out, and another app for your smart toaster will tell you when it’s going to burn your toast. Each of the individual gadgets is pretty cool, but all of this noise on top of the nonstop barrage of notifications that light up your phone during the day seems like a recipe for message fatigue. It’s not difficult at all to make the argument that these notifications would be a better experience as delivered in Twitter’s signature stream.
Delivering these notifications is already done regularly by developers today, but each has to reinvent the wheel when it comes to handling tons of users or building the necessary code to support features on each new phone or device platform that comes along. If a smart device is fortunate enough to succeed, its makers get to face the same kind of fail whales that plagued Twitter for years. Piggybacking on Twitter’s infrastructure and could solve a lot of these issues, especially if they relied on an updated version of the features that Annotations promised.
This concept already exists for coders — it goes by name like a “messaging bus” or a “message queue”, though these services tend to be far more complex and expensive than it is to simply send a tweet. More to the point for developers, Twitter’s also a lot more fun than using an “enterprise message bus” service.
There’s a more subtle point here, too: Twitter enables connections between accounts. What exists today as a social network between people who follow and reply to each other could tomorrow expand to be an information network between devices that could follow and reply to each other. Telling your smart smoke detector not to set off the alarm when the smart toaster has said it’s about to burn the toast is currently a task for only the most stalwart geeks. There’s no reason that kind of connection couldn’t be a new use for the “follow” button.
But the point here isn’t to outline every possible interesting feature that can come from a fully-networked Internet of Things. Hell, I don’t even know what the most interesting capability would be. The key here is that Twitter is the best service to offer these features. It’s simple, fun, familiar, and available already on every device that matters. None of those things are true about the other “Internet of Things” platforms that have been announced.
Twitter could charge apps or devices (or humans!) that send high volumes of messages with Annotations, diversifying its revenue stream from simply being advertising-based, and building trust with any developers who still had lingering concerns about Twitter’s developer strategy by making these new features sustainable.
Chris Sacca speaking at Twitter’s Chirp conference in 2010.
Boom Boom Pow
The thing is, it’s easy to write fan fiction imagining all kinds of features being invented by Twitter. I want a pony! And a new CEO who’s from an underrepresented community!
But most of the smart suggestions are probably already on Twitter’s roadmap, including those on Chris Sacca’s list. These suggestions tend to assume, though, that the only audience that matters are Twitter’s mainstream, non-technical users. This is an odd assumption given that many of Twitter’s most engaging signature features were pioneered by its early adopter nerds.
And it’s essential for Twitter to get out of the MAU metrics game with investors. We can imagine a hundred different ways to juke the stats and try to distract fickle financiers, but revisiting Annotations may be one of the few ways to do so in a way that’s based on substance — actually providing the kind of meaningful platform innovation that developers actually want.
There’s something unique and distinct in being an information network instead of just a social network. Twitter has been that network, and can be again.
Revisiting Annotations wouldn’t be a magic bullet. But it could be a way to reconcile Twitter’s past and its future, to appease both developers and investors. And it might be a chance to rekindle some of the unqualified enthusiasm that so many saw for the company at its coming out party half a decade ago, before it’s 2000-and-late.
Presidential candidate Piyush "Bobby" Jindal has said he'll take questions over social media today. I've got some questions, but let's start first with some background.
As is probably obvious, I disagree with most of Jindal's policies. I genuinely have no issue with the tiny minority of South Asian Americans who hold conservative views. (Only 3% of Indian Americans are Republican, a lower percentage than African Americans. There are more independent Desis than Republican ones.)
But I do have an issue with undermining the South Asian community. How is it possible the highest-profile Indian politician in U.S. history won't even let his oldest friends wear Indian clothes at his events?
There's a line of argument that says we should take any visibility as progress, and follow Jindal simply because of his ethnicity. (Naturally, it's the conservatives who claim to be color blind who are advancing that idea.) I'd even joked about this, saying, "I hope Jindal gets nominated. It'd legitimize Indian American candidates while showing how everyone hates his stupid-ass platform."
The core issue here is what compromises are acceptable for a politician to make when they come from a community that has such a tenuous grasp on "Americanness" in the first place. I suspect it may be hard for many to understand why every Indian American they know is so vehemently offended by Bobby Jindal. The answer is simple: We are pressured everyday to erase and censor ourselves, to reject our parents and our culture. It's constant. That's why, even 8 years ago, I was already very skeptical of Bobby Jindal and his intentions.
I never though a (nominally) indian guy would get elected governor of a U.S. state and I'd be disappointed.
From the folks at a TSA checkpoint to the coworker who refuses to learn how to pronounce our names, we are always fighting to be ourselves. And what Bobby Jindal represents is complete capitulation in that battle for self. The worst fear of any community reckoning with assimilation is confirmed—giving up all traces of one's own identity will be rewarded.
So the visceral rejection of everything about Jindal is a simple assertion that our identities and values matter, and they shouldn't be compromised. It's only after this, almost incidentally, that the overwhelming majority of us also arrive at the inescapable conclusion that Jindal is a clown with terrible policies. (With one notable exception, his uncomplicated and astoundingly reasonable support for vaccination.)
Bobby Jindal is not white
I was delighted to see that the immediate response from almost every part of the Indian diaspora when we heard of Bobby Jindal announcing his presidential campaign was unabashed mockery. An unserious candidate deserves an unserious response, and if we can use such an occasion to demonstrate how fantastically funny we are, even better.
But I was disappointed that the bulk of the responses organized around the theme of "Bobby Jindal is so white", even though I'm proud of my friend Hari Kondabolu for having had such an impact.
Because honestly, I don't think we should say "Bobby Jindal is so white", even as a joke. He has a specifically Indian American pathology. Most white folks in the United States don't have occasion to ponder Indian American identity at all, because there just aren't that many of us, and we so seldom have any real power. So, Jindal acting the way he does is definitely not him being "white". There's a deeper issue: He wants to erase us.
It's not just that Bobby Jindal left his parents' faith. (Hell, I did that, too.) But rather, Jindal thinks no one should be of his parents' faith. It's not that Bobby Jindal doesn't identify as Indian American, it's that he doesn't want anyone to identify that way.
So, while I'm happy to make jokes about Jindal, the reason he is truly toxic is because he would eliminate the very community that made him, that gave him all the opportunities he's had. I can mock that Bobby Jindal turned his back on his name, Piyush. But what's sad is he'd prefer there be no boys named Piyush in America.
My name is Anil Dash. That's what my parents named me. They're Indian Americans, and I'm proud to be of them. I'm proud of my community.
So my question to Bobby Jindal, about not just his candidacy but his entire career, is why? Why do you think the world would be better off without the unique and beautiful culture created by yours parents and mine, and lived by me and millions of others? Why don't you love us, and yourself, and your country enough to think we should be part of it?
What it’s like to have the social network of a celebrity, without actually being famous
I’ve got more Twitter followers than you. I’ve got more Twitter followers than Ted Cruz, and I’m only a little bit behind Björk. If my followers were a state, we’d be creeping up on Wyoming in terms of population. Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I’m just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.
For celebrities, maintaining a large social network is just part of the job. For a regular person, things get pretty weird pretty quickly once a couple hundred thousand new friends show up.
Some background is necessary here. I didn’t actually earn my giant Twitter network. Sure, a lot of my followers are people who wanted to keep up with my updates (I write for outlets like The Message on Medium where this piece first appeared, and talk about things like technology and pop culture and politics, which always drive conversation on Twitter). But somewhere around half of my followers are only there because I was included on the “Suggested User List”, a now-retired feature that used to recommend people to follow when you joined the service.
Basically, somebody who worked at Twitter back in 2009 added me to that list, and all of a sudden my online network got upgraded to the kind of numbers that are usually only reserved for rock stars. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t end up with a ton of followers online because of any merit of my own; these things are always arbitrary. But in addition to getting onto that one weird list, I picked up a lot of my real followers simply by being early to Twitter. That’s a tactic that definitely helps you get more followers, and I’d strongly recommend joining Twitter in 2006 if you have the option. #helpfuladvice
The strangeness doesn’t end on Twitter. Once you get popular on one social network, it sort of bleeds over into other networks, since lots of apps let you import a list of friends from other services when you sign up. As a result, I have an absurdly large network on almost every popular service:
About half a million followers on Twitter
About 150,000 followers on Facebook
Thousands of followers on Instagram, Vine, and most of the other common social networks
I’ve got that insipid little blue checkmark on Twitter that indicates I’m verified. I even have a blue checkmark on Facebook! (Did you know Facebook has verified users? True story.)
So there must be some kind of awesome payoff for all this, right? Like I can just flash my Twitter profile at the door to the club and I get escorted back directly to Jay & Bey’s booth?
Ehh, not really.
Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams
A few times some misguided publicists have sent me advance copies of books, I guess in the hope that I might promote them on my Twitter account. (If I had the attention span to read a book, would I be spending all my time on Twitter? C’mon now.) If I ask for cooking tips or technical support, I tend to get pretty good answers from my network. And of course my friends like to mock me for being a pseudo-celebrity, though the novelty of that has worn off after a few years.
But I’ve never gotten a better seat at a restaurant because of it. The few times I’ve been added to the guest list for an event has typically been because I’ve written for some old-fashioned print magazines; Those invites became a lot more scarce after I stopped, even though my social network is a lot bigger today.
At a technological level, most of the tools and apps for using social networks completely fall apart once your network becomes huge. A lot of Twitter-related apps just crash as soon as I log in to them, and of course I have to turn off email notifications on any service I use in order to avoid being buried in a tsunami of alerts. The “notifications” area of Twitter typically sends me about 1,500 updates in a day, though there have been days when I get more than 5,000 notifications. I know there are people who have followed me who have wondered why I never followed them back, and it’s because at a certain point it can become impossible to identify particular individuals within the giant mass of incoming messages.
In all, aside from making people roll their eyes at me, the biggest impact of having this absurdly distended online network is that it makes my online life really weird. The weirdness is probably best demonstrated by a few of the recurring conversations that arise as a result:
“Yo, can you listen to my mixtape?” This is perhaps the most frequent side effect of having a lot of followers: People think there must be a reason people follow me, and assume I can do something for them as a result. In my case (and I don’t know if this is because I like hip hop, or is just random), I regularly get messages from people asking me to listen to their mixtapes or watch their YouTube videos. If this seems like an absurd request to you, then perhaps the next time you talk to Drake you should ask him how much my cosign on his mixtape meant to him.
“Hey, can you get me verified?” A variation on wanting attention or amplification for one’s work are the young folks (and they’re invariably under 25 years old) who very insistently plead for me to help them get a verified checkmark. Of course, I have no say in who gets verified, and I don’t even really understand the criteria by which the networks choose whom to bestow their blessing upon. But more importantly the checkmark doesn’t do anything! It’s the most clear case of star-bellied sneetches I’ve yet been able to find in adulthood, but this fact does nothing to temper the deep conviction of some that getting a blue checkmark on their Twitter or Facebook account would change their lives. Sometimes I want to email these people and ask how they think a few blue pixels on their Twitter account could have this kind of impact, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without revealing what a complete asshole I am.
“Please RT!” And then, of course, there are the incessant requests to promote or retweet or amplify people’s work. “I wrote a thing!” or “Your followers will love this!” or “Can you just share this real quick?” The politeness of these requests is typically in inverse relation to their merit. Sure, some of these are cool things I’m thrilled to get to share with a (theoretically) larger audience. But the overwhelming majority is just crap, or things that nobody would believe I was sincerely sharing. Worst of all: Nobody clicks. Well, not nobody, but out of about 550,000 followers on Twitter, it’s very common for fewer than 400 of them to click on a link I share. (That’s .07%!) And yet dudes (yes, it’s always dudes) feel like they’re doing me a favor by asking. I cofounded a company that helps people understand their behavior on social networks, and looking at some of my most popular content that I’ve shared shows about 1700 people clicking on a link, in total.
“Kill yourself!” If you have a lot of followers online, and especially if you have the temerity to do so while being a woman and/or a minority of some sort , you’ll often just face waves of harassment and abuse, regardless of how innocuous your statements are. I’d talk more about this, and what the social networks could do to fix things, but then the GamerGate hordes will just show up and start sending threats again, and ughhhhh who has the time? Anyway, this isn’t unique to having a big network, but having one may paint a larger target on one’s back.
“Help?” In an era where everybody’s got a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo to promote, it’s no surprise that people looking for crowdfunding success beg for links from the loudest voices online. Some of these are laughable (shout out to the 20-year-old guy who desperately wanted us to help him buy his first dirt bike), but there are a substantial number of people in real need. Almost every day, I hear a story of someone who needs help with their medical bills, or who went through an ugly divorce, or who lost their job, and they’re hoping that just getting in front of the right person online will change their luck. These are the conversations that I struggle with the most; I try to help as many as I can personally, but I generally don’t share their messages because so many turn out to be either misleading or sketchy and I don’t have the time to verify each one that I would share with my followers.
Be my soapbox
Some typical statistics on my Twitter activity, as reported by Twitter’s analytics features
What becomes clear after a few years of having a large social network is that people are desperate to be heard. Some of this is related to the fundamental question of conversation online, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But much of it ties back to people feeling powerless, of flailing toward any person who seems like they could provide opportunity or a way forward.
I sometimes respond to people with facts and figures, showing how the raw number of connections in one’s network doesn’t matter as much as who those connections are, and how engaged they are. But the truth is, our technological leaders have built these tools in a way that explicitly promotes the idea that one’s follower count is the score we keep, the metric that matters. After more than a decade of having that lesson amplified across the Internet, the billion or so people who rely on online social networks have taken the message to heart. It’s no wonder so many people want to believe that the only thing that’s kept them from all the promised benefits of the World Wide Web is that they haven’t had access to the kind of giant network that I was arbitrarily gifted.
In some ways, the people who ascribe almost-magical powers to a big social network are right. My network confers a wide range of privileges upon me. Having a few hundred people read something you want to promote is meaningful, and it’s a power that I have in my hands, at least some of the time. Getting that kind of attention by buying an ad on Twitter or Facebook probably costs a couple hundred dollars, so there’s a clear incentive to try spamming popular accounts in the off chance that it will eventually succeed.
But more broadly, people have been sold a bill of goods. They want to believe that celebrity of any form, even fake online celebrity, has some kind of value, despite the evidence to the contrary. Signifiers like a blue verification checkmark or a number of followers are given an enormously prominent display on our social profiles. Yet despite their visibility, their capricious nature is never explained, and so people tend to wrongly see these as indicators of the quality a person’s social media presence.
The thing that’s forgotten is, people don’t have huge social networks because they’re good at using the Internet. Beyonce got to having millions of Twitter followers before she ever even wrote her first tweet.
The fact is, online celebrity is just a simple reflection of the existing networks of privilege that confer benefits on people in every other realm of life.
In my particular case, being picked as a suggested user on Twitter changed the trajectory of my online life, but how is having a friend who was an early Twitter employee any different from the Old Boys’ Club? It ain’t.
My First Million
Once we realize that, a few unusual accidents aside, our social networks have the same foibles and biases as the rest of our culture, that leaves a basic question: Is there any value to any of this?
Yes. First, there is the privilege of getting to connect to an extraordinarily large group of people, and get a small window into their thoughts and desires. Hearing an unfiltered stream of people shouting their wishes into the vast expanses of the Internet has permanently made me more aware of the humanity of the strangers who tweet at me every day.
My outsized online footprint has also made me more keenly aware of the effects of the things I do share. If I’ve been given a preposterously large platform through no intrinsic merit of my own, how can I be worthy of it? Can I be mindful of whose voices I amplify? Can I challenge myself to raise issues that could benefit by greater visibility? Can I be more generous with the subtle gestures of social networks like favoriting or liking things, and convey a bit more kindness to those around me?
I’m still not good at it. I get self-conscious thinking that my words might be watched by some kid I went to high school with, or some random person in my neighborhood, or my father-in-law, or an ex-flame, or an unknown enemy. Even though I know most tweets that I send out just flow by are ignored by the vast majority of people on the network, every once in a while I wonder what would happen if half a million people did see what I wrote?
What would you do if you had half a million Twitter followers?
I once took the time to ask my network what they would do in my position. I got 120 real replies. The first set of replies to the question were jokes (mostly fairly gentle ones at my expense). Another small but significant set of replies were self-promotion, saying that they’d get the word out about the projects they’re working on, or just that they’d ask everyone for a dollar. A handful had darker responses about how they’d quit the network or steadfast replies about how they wouldn’t change a thing.
But by far, the most animated, most considered responses were the group that eventually became the single largest set of replies. Dozens of people each suggested that the one thing they would do with a celebrity-sized social network was directly address the issues and causes that they care most about.
Maybe we don’t have to wait until we’re famous to do that.