When Twitter rolled out list functionality this month, the predictable happened:
- The early adopters experimented with their shiny new toy.
- The users who didn’t initially have access to it ached and pouted.
- Mashable wrote a how-to guide.
- The easily-distracted got bored.
But since technology only stays in the headlines when it’s new, polarizing or from Apple, something had to stoke the flames, and that something turned out to be a polarizing post from Chris Brogan.
In it, Chris argues that lists are just another form of exclusion — that by adding Person X to my list but not Person Y, I’m inferring that Person Y is less interesting or less valuable than Person X, and that’s mean. And since social media is primarily the domain of easily wounded narcissists, excluding them can’t possibly be good for the team. Fellow gurus like Mack Collier concurred.
This argument was then eviscerated with pulse-pounding fervor by Robert Scoble, who — armed with a litany of narrative tricks that make his post read like a gradeschool taunting — made Chris look like a girly-man for wanting everyone to feel loved. In Scoble’s world, people are judged by their merit; simply wanting to be included is not enough to get you invited to his party.
And since this contentious issue’s SEO juice had now been percolated, hundreds of comments and companion posts popped up from people with equally valid opinions.
None of which is the actual point.
Nor is the actual point this, though it bears explaining: Twitter lists are a tool which, like Twitter itself, can be used any damn way you please. You want to make a list of Thought Leaders? Be my guest. If I’m not on it, I’ll survive. I’m not you, and I don’t use Twitter the same way you do, so I can’t judge the way you use it. (Except for those times when I do.) I may disagree with you, but I grant you the freedom to be horribly wrong.
No, the actual point is that social media misunderstands itself.
Why We Can’t All Just Get Along
This most recent debate over merit vs. popularity was born from Chris’s concern that some very talented but underrated bloggers and social media innovators will be left off other people’s Twitter lists, and that — like a teen, whose suddenly obvious unpopularity fuels her weekly trips to Hot Topic — this exclusion would somehow discourage them from participating further. This concern is similar to the conclusion of The Incredibles, in which young Dash is urged by his father to “come in second” so as to not crush the hopes and dreams of his fellow racers — who, because they’re trying so hard, are equally deserving of success. Chris’s argument presumes that failure is a catalyst for giving up, and that runaway success is to be avoided at all costs so as to not demoralize one’s peers.
But Chris and Scoble’s debate wouldn’t be as contentious as it is if he and Scoble weren’t as popular as they are. Ironically, the very merit bestowed upon Chris by thousands of discerning readers who’ve judged him “worthy” over the years has provided him with the immense platform from which he can now summarily declare that all tweets are created equal.
Except they’re not.
Social Media Is Functionally Unable to Be a Meritocracy
As much as everyone in social media claims they’d like their work to be judged on its actual merit, the metrics we use to measure that merit — followers, readers, page views, reach — are really measurements of popularity. Our system of separating the worthy (Brogan, Scoble) from the non (everyone who’s writing about Brogan and Scoble) isn’t based on the relative value of the worthy people’s statements, but on the likelihood that those statements will be read, considered and adopted by the fishbowl at large.
What’s ironic is that Twitter lists represent a departure from that norm, in which users are free to form lists based on their own criteria, rather than the obvious power numbers. And just like everyone has different favorites on YouTube, Flickr or Digg, everyone who builds his own Twitter lists will have different criteria to help determine who he thinks is “worthy” of inclusion. In turn, this increased exposure may help those underrated and undervalued gems that Chris was originally concerned about slowly gain the type of exposure that passes for validation in this fishbowl, thanks to increased awareness by the people who are searching for just such an underdog.
Social media is a lot of things, but thick-skinned isn’t one of them. It’s a medium of instant validation (or lack thereof), and seeing others succeed while you continue to tread water can be disheartening in real time. But there’s a converse to that mentality: if the next guy has more blog subscribers than you do, consider it a benchmark to aspire to, rather than a reason to quit. (Or realize that you’re each trafficking in different audiences, and be content to grow yours organically.)
We may not all be equal, but we’re all individuals. And that realization will carry us much farther as a whole than any insistence that we all be invited to the same party.