lies, damned lies, and social media statistics

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Social media statistics – shares, retweets, and likes – reflect content’s value the way a funhouse mirror reflects one’s looks: grotesquely.  As the web lines its halls with social mirrors, these distortions are influencing the content we create and consume.

One need look no further than the headlines at Hacker News for a gallery of the grotesque:  “N Reasons…“, ”Why X is Wrong“, “Free Y”, and “How Z.. Cancer”.  Many of these stories are explicitly crafted to achieve fifteen seconds of fame.

I plead guilty of this seduction  – with @jkottke telling me off as proof – because it’s tempting to believe that metrics are an honest measure of value.  They’re not.

Social Media Statistics are Biased

Hacker News readers are not a representative audience. Because of the frenzied frequency with which they flood the voting booths of cyberspace, their influence is outsized – and perversely enough, in inverse proportion to their attention spans.

We need a balance against these biases.  A retweet from @timoreilly means more than one from @lolz69.  Klout has attempted, with some ignominy, to measure online influence. If we weighted retweet counts by influence, we might have a better measure of an article’s impact.

Time matters too. All content is a zero until someone reacts, so we need to gauge the speed of +1s or shares, not just the total.

And positive feedback loops are everywhere.  We end up reading and sharing the same few dozen articles every day, not because these are always the most valuable, but because once they’ve bubbled up into the meme pool, they get recirculated and amplified.

Be a First Follower

The strongest signal of quality should be the content itself, not its number of shares or comments.  If you keep an open mind, you’ll encounter that joy of discovery once so integral to the web.  Lovely gems still lurk out there.  

Being the first follower takes a smidgeon of bravery.  So ignore what other people think and share something no one else has.  You’ll be a democratizing force.

Connect with People, Don’t Collect Them

Few of us share our ideas, photographs, and experiences online solely to collect followers.  We do so to convince, to delight, to connect with people.  

If you’re a creator, never confuse numbers with the value of your creative output.  Resist the urge to chase some earlier success.  If you create something of lasting value, which has staying power after the initial spasms of interest have passed, you will engage with your audience in a way that few metrics reveal.

Blogging to boost your follower count is like launching a start-up to build your bank balance:  it rarely works.  Instead, focus passionately on creating value, and the rest will come.

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