Essays on Technology and Culture

Engagement Counts in Small Amounts

As Depeche Mode says, “everything counts in large amounts,” and the prevailing wisdom of the day for social media is to get big numbers of people who follow, like, retweet, share, pin, or whatever is you do on the buzz worthy service du jour. To this end, there are services that promise, for a price, huge numbers of new Twitter followers, Facebook likes, fans, increased Klout scores. It’s big business, but what does it get you? A big number, and nothing else.

If you’re of an “old media” mindset, you’re used to thinking of media as a one-way thing, and the value coming from the number of eyeballs looking at whatever you put out there. But eyeballs are just eyeballs, they see a lot, but the power of social media is that you can reach more than eyeballs, you can reach living, breathing people with ideas, voices, and a way to talk back to you. A propaganda mouthpiece isn’t likely to make anyone care, unless it’s doing something as bizarre as horse_ebooks, and nobody who follows that is buying anything. (I hope.) Even worse for the “old media” types, is that you can’t buy eyeballs on most social networks, only the illusion of eyeballs. If you have a six-digit Twitter follower number, and none of them actually interact with you, or your thing, all you have is a number next to your name that cost you a lot and makes you nothing.

What’s better is to have a smaller number of people who really, really, really care about what you’re doing and want to interact. Let’s call them fans. Kevin Kelly suggests you need 1,000 true fans, but the number can be bigger, or smaller, depending on what you’re doing and how engaged they are. These people are the most important. Satisfy them, and you’re made in the shade. Kevin Kelly’s piece is aimed at musicians and other artists, but this same philosophy can work for a startup company, a freelancer, or anyone else who needs to win the love of people to make their bills at the end of the month.

After all, people have no compunction towards giving money to things they truly love. Even when I was on unemployment for a year, barely scraping by, I saved my pennies to buy the new album by my favorite band, see my extremely talented friends play concerts, and support the local businesses that made my favorite coffee and falafel, and I felt no guilt. It’s the principle that makes sites like Kickstarter work. It’s how writers I admire big and not so big are making money. It’s what keeps Apple and any number of App Store apps in business. Even if money isn’t your goal, nobody wants to shout into a void. It helps when people shout back, good or bad. Now they can. Embrace it.