The month of March blew through here surprisingly quickly, so it’s already time to report on what I did this month to keep my online diet healthier. This month, I thought long and hard about audience numbers. This theme came up in last month’s report, too – if I may be allowed to paraphrase myself:
We seem to have collectively decided that, in the internet age, we “have to” keep up with each other on every available social media channel. If you and I are friends, then I “should” be your Facebook friend, Twitter follower, contact on LinkedIn and circle-member on Google+, not to mention subscribed to your blog. And yet, nobody is equally interesting in all these spaces at once. Can’t we choose where to follow each other?
There’s a second side to that idea, though – it’s this whole numbers game of social media. We all like to watch our numbers, don’t we? How many blog subscribers do you have? How many Twitter followers and Facebook friends and all that? What’s your Klout score?
Image by fragmented, via Twitter
We like to believe that these numbers are important indicators of… what? Our popularity? Our legitimacy as human beings? Our future income? We want our numbers to go up and up, all the time, and we’re sad if they decline. And on top of that, we put pressure on ourselves to have big numbers in every online space we inhabit.
Still, in this utterly spintered and overly-noisy online landscape, do our numbers really mean what we think they mean? I think we’d like to believe that our numbers represent the number of people who are actually paying attention to us online. But that’s pretty easy to debunk – look at your own online habits. Are you, right now, subscribed to any blogs that you never actually read? Do you have Facebook or Twitter buddies whose updates you never actually pay attention to, let alone respond to? If so, you represent a “listener number” to each of these people, and yet you aren’t listening. I’d bet that every single one of us does this. And I’d bet that every single one of us, as a result, has listeners who aren’t listening.
Image by kurichan, via Flickr
Should we get upset with each other over this? Heck no! I think our obsession with our numbers comes from two sources. First, we’re collectively enjoying the heady first blush of being publishers. For the first time in our histories, we have the opportunity to share who we are directly with an audience of like-minded souls. So of course we want as much of this feeling as possible!
Second, we’re doing what we’re hard-wired to do, which is smear our habitual old-media-era thinking all over a new media era. For most of our lives, we’ve watched magazines and TV shows and radio trumpet their audience numbers (as a means of attracting advertisers, but more on that in a moment). So it’s very natural that we place such importance on them now. It just may not be so accurate or useful.
…And that’s because our online numbers game is often directly tied to the state of overload we feel online. If we feel that we “should” follow everyone we know in every space we inhabit, or we feel we “should” follow back everyone who follows us, it’s not long before there’s way more information coming at us than we can possibly digest. Along the road to growing big numbers, we can lose the things that make the web so compelling – personal connection and abundant resources.
I worked with my numbers in two ways this month. First, I spent time quietly unfollowing people on Twitter (all hail TwitCleaner) and removing people from my Google+ circles. (Just like last month, when I quietly unsubscribed from a number of blogs I just wasn’t finding compelling anymore.) I know I’m hurting people’s numbers by doing this – and in many cases, people I genuinely care about. But then again, it’s not healthy for me to put the numbers before my own ability to use the crafty web as a tool for inspiration and connection.
Image by Leo Reynolds, via Flickr
On the other side of the coin, I practiced reframing how I see changes in my own numbers. I see daily ups and downs in my various subscriberships, and like most of us, I’ve always felt the “downs” as a little personal sting. (You mean you don’t like me anymore?!)
But you know what? It’s just as likely that each person who lets go of following my various feeds is really just taking healthy steps toward streamlining their online diet. Unless I see a mass exodus of readers, I’m committing myself to view the daily fluctuations in terms of other people’s health, and to feel respectful toward them.
I think you deserve all the numbers you want. And going forward, if I’m going to be one of your numbers, I want to be one of the numbers that actually represents a listening human being.
Before I wrap up. I’ll quickly caveat myself: of course, if you’re selling ad space on your website, your numbers are important. Advertisers want to know how many “eyeballs” they’re purchasing with their ad buy. And at this moment in time, most of them don’t seem to be looking beyond the numbers themselves. So I might get a great big bubble of traffic from one of my blog posts hitting StumbleUpon, and what that really represents is thousands of people who looked at my website for maybe ten seconds each. It’s a giant drive-by that ultimately doesn’t gain me any meaningful audience. But a potential advertiser looks at those numbers and says “Goody!”
Even so, I don’t see that model as sustainable, and I hope that in future advertisers will learn to look beyond the numbers for signs of real reader engagement.
Now, what do you think? Are there places you’re following, but not listening? How important are the numbers to you? What do your numbers represent to you?