There's a pretty cool editorial in Wired this week that tentatively suggests something that many of you have already figured out without trying: an online presence with too many followers may actually stop good discourse in its tracks. Put simply, if somebody has 957,400 Twitter followers - or routinely gets 350 comments on each blog entry - the person in charge becomes a figurehead, and the online community degenerates into crap.
Greater minds than mine have dissected what the perfect size of a community should be - if you read any Robin Dunbar (or Malcolm Gladwell, for that matter), you'll see the number 150 crop up again and again. Apparently 150 people was the perfect upper limit for early tribe gatherings, Roman squadrons, close-knit villages, and any other group that had a vested, efficient interest in staying together.
Any bigger than that, and things got unwieldy. More draconian laws would get passed, the sense of "belonging" vanished, and the sheer size of your community would escape your peripheral vision, leading you to balkanize and stop giving a shit about big swaths of your group. I'm pretty sure companies could save themselves a lot of money by not hiring a consulting firm and just reducing their self-contained pods to 150.
Of course, with the commoditization of Twitter and Facebook, we start to use our old capitalist rules on a medium that doesn't bear the weight as well as you might think. I'm sure there's some monetary value in having a million Twitter followers, and if you're in it just to receive blasts the same way you'd get information from a radio station tower, that's awesome - but there's certainly no "community" worth a damn.
Currently on Facebook, I have 602 friends. That's pretty good for not being in high school, where you automatically befriend 350 classmates just by showing up. My friend count is largely due to UNC (where I was excessively social), this blog (which makes me easy to find), and the fact that I'm 42, lived lots of lives, and haven't grown totally complacent. But that number doesn't (and shouldn't) convince me I'm remotely cool. In fact, once that number crept over about 250, I started to feel meaningless on there. Almost like we were all collecting friends the way we would collect pretty shells on the beach.
I hardly ever invite people to things via Facebook, because I feel like it'll get thrown into your daily vat of invites and quizzes, and end up being one more thing you've got to wade through. Don't get me wrong: I love seeing all of you on there, and I would be overjoyed to be your Friend, but the sense of community there is cacophonous.
So, naturally, I started looking at the statistics for this blog. I added up how many hits we were getting each month, and how many "unique visitors" we get per workday, and then adjusted for spam and image searches. If you follow the Zipf curve of Participation Inequality, or the "90-9-1" rule, turns out our lurking community is very large, but the 10% of you who comment either frequently or intermittently throughout the year is just over 100 people.
Nice fucking work, y'all! They said blogs were old-fashioned and would die out once YouTube and MySpace took over the world, but we gots ourselves the Perfect Online Community™! As Clive Thompson said in Wired, we're the...
...group of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it... willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because [we're] among intimates... It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel... what if they warned us when our social circles became unsustainably large?Posted by Ian Williams at January 25, 2010 11:33 PM