Would social media be better without public numbers?

Today’s follower bug on Twitter has stirred up questions again about the value of perceived personal and organizational social capital of social media sites that make front and central the numbers of followers of each user.

In case you missed it, for a little while today, the Entire Twitter Universe was rocked by a code error that caused all follower/following counts to display as zero.

It was so utterly epic, a friend actually called to tell me about it.


Because here’s the funny thing about today’s bug. It didn’t actually break Twitter. Other than a brief security hole that allowed people to engineer followers (which, in the process of fixing, Twitter created the short-lived zeroed error), the Twitter experience remained relatively normal.

My feed remained the same. I logged in and saw the same content. I had the same ability to share anything with everyone who’s chosen to follow me. All said and done, Twitter was still Twitter, and the utility of the site – the content, the feed, the links, the relationships – were all intact.

What was missing today was the numbers.

Yet, people were freaking out. At the least, commentary on “where my followers went” was ironically flying around (amongst networks of followers still networking). More extreme commentary used terms like “doomsday,” “epic,” and “failure.” And whether that was tongue in cheek or not, the very need for tongue in cheek commentary on the micro-event illustrates the actual panic many users experienced. I’ll be honest and confess that for a few moments I wracked my brain to recall the last time I’d imported important new contacts into FriendFeed for backup.

As a student of social capital, I understand why it’s important to measure value, especially in terms of networks and relationships. Because if this event taught us anything, it’s that people put a lot of stock in those numbers. So the questions brought up by today’s user experience aren’t about whether numbers matter or not.

What I’m questioning is whether numbers are really a great metric for determining value.

What’s in a Number?

In grad school, we learn that it’s relatively easy to create numbers. Ask a question. Get a certain number of results. Great. Numbers.

But numbers, in research, do not necessarily meaning make. Even the most robustly responded to study, if constructed ineffectively, still won’t communicate truth.

Because what really creates good meaning is asking good questions.

The Questions

So, here are some of the questions I think we should be asking about social media.

  • Why do I connect with people on social media? What are my criteria and motivations?
  • Regardless of what the pundits and experts say, how do I interpret numbers in social media – numbers about others, and about myself
  • Do those interpretations correlate, or do I hold myself in different esteem than others?
  • What’s in it for me? Are my actions consistent with what I want out of this investment of my time?
  • What’s in it for them? Are my actions consistent with what my network and potential contacts want out of their investment of time and attention?
  • If sites like Twitter and Facebook permanently removed the numbers, would I still find them valuable enough to invest so much of my time and attention?

So, about that “Real Value?”

Great question. I’m still pondering that one myself. But perhaps part of the problem is over-thinking the answer.

Because today also brought with it a unexpected event of larger proportion, completely overshadowing this interesting little question of social psychology and my planned commentary for the evening.

On my commute home, tornado sirens broke out all over my local metro, and the overpowering rain, wind, and uncertainty threw me into a panic. It was the first time I’d been driving – or anywhere other than a designated safe zone – in the midst of the truly epic event of an Oklahoma tornado nearby. And the storm was headed straight for a portion of my route home.

Value, in that moment, for me was the ability to call my husband for news and get real-time information about the storm from caring group of citizens on Twitter via #okstorms. Value was knowing to pull over my car and seek shelter even when it looked like the coast was clear to avoid a rain-wrapped twister a few miles away. Value was the thankfulness and relief I felt when I knew thanks to Facebook updates and texts that my family and friends were okay.

Because all social media ideals aside, real, actual value, when it really matters, is in the relationships and ideas that sustain us.

A couch to crash, a conversation to join, a word of well-wishes when it matters, is incredibly, unshakably powerful.

No matter what bugs hit Twitter.

That’s my answer.

What’s yours?

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