An Attention Ponzi Scheme?

January 2, 2009
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There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere lately about whether the number of followers a person has on Twitter is indicative of that person’s authority. I give Loic Le Meur credit for starting this discussion. The most popular alternative seems to be to measure how many times someone’s messages are retweeted.

I find the debate over Twitter authority morbidly fascinating, like a car accident from which I can’t look

There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere lately about whether the number of followers a person has on Twitter is indicative of that person’s authority. I give Loic Le Meur credit for starting this discussion. The most popular alternative seems to be to measure how many times someone’s messages are retweeted.

I find the debate over Twitter authority morbidly fascinating, like a car accident from which I can’t look away. But I’m more interested in a different question: what does it mean to follow someone on Twitter?

A few months ago, I wrote:

Connections in Twitter reflect real value. They correspond to investments of attention. Someone with many followers is much like an author with many readers. While I’m sure this metric can be gamed (e.g., by creating bogus Twitter accounts and having them follow you), at least Twitter has the model right in principle.

How naive of me! Consider the following:

Clearly following someone does not correspond to an investment of attention for these people. And, while they may be extreme cases, I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual for someone to follow over 500 people. I have a hard time believing that anyone pays that much attention to that many people?

Why would anyone follow that many people? The obvious reason is the expectation of reciprocity: following someone often leads to their following back. And many people want to have more followers, possibly as a status symbol, but perhaps out of a sincere desire to exert greater influence. But if following someone doesn’t actually correspond to an investment of attention, then these efforts are a complete waste of time, the attention economy equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.

There’s nothing unique about Twitter here; the same phenomenon seems to take place in every social networking platform. But the minimal nature of Twitter exposes this silliness in its purest form.

To be clear, there are people who are really using Twitter to interact with other people. I consider myself one of them. I put a hard cap at 200 people as the number I can plausibly hope to follow, and I unfollow people if I find I’m not interacting with them, e.g., because my interest in them is strictly professional but they use Twitter primarily for personal / social expression.

I’m not so presumptous as to tell people how they should use Twitter and other social networks. Live and let live. But I don’t see why the Ponzi scheme of chasing for followers / connections hasn’t burst. It would be nice to see a social network use a concept of scarcity to ensure that connections are valuable. End attention inflation now!

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