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Meaning, Measurement & Numbers: Twitter’s Follower Bug & the Value of Social Networks

By Tiffany Monhollon

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.

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?

Interested in more conversations like this? Subscribe to Personal PR to get free updates, or connect with me on Twitter.

By Tiffany Monhollon | May 11, 2010

Topics: Communicating, Learning, Personal PR, Relationships, Social Media, Twitter |

16 Responses to “Meaning, Measurement & Numbers: Twitter’s Follower Bug & the Value of Social Networks”

  1. Brian Blake Says:
    May 11th, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Great points, Tiffany.

    I was completely unplugged during this frenzy yesterday… Oblivious to it… And you know what? It did not phase my life in one single way. Amazing, isn’t it?

    I logged onto Twitter when I got home last night to check the latest on the tornadoes we had across our state. I had a few quick conversations with friends (some of whom I only know online, yet are still very close to me). I retweeted a few requests for help and/or donations for the victims of the tornadoes. And then I called it a night (for Twitter, anyway).

    Who cares about the numbers?! Whether I have 50 followers or 500 followers doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. It’s the quality of the connections I have that matter.

    The ‘gurus’ among us (and you know who they are) would like to believe that more is better. I disagree. Better is better.

    Better engagement.
    Better communities.
    Better interaction.
    Better results.

    You are absolutely right… Numbers are just numbers. They don’t ‘mean’ anything.

  2. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 11th, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Thanks for the comment!

    I love the phrase “better is better.”

    To me, that doesn’t preclude numbers. Better and bigger aren’t mutually exclusive.

    But instead of focusing so much time and energy building bigger in an environment you can’t control or guarantee will even last, building better ensures that your network, energy, and realtionships will be able to transcent the digital technologies that help support them today.

    Real relationships are there whether Twitter is or not. That’s really what became apparent to me in this situation.

    Thanks again for the thoughts! Interested to see where this conversation goes.

  3. Kate Hutchinson Says:
    May 11th, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I totally missed this “catastrophe” too, but here’s my thoughts on it:

    When I first started blogging in 2002, I wanted a ton of followers. I wanted everyone to know how “popular” I was. And over time, as I evolved my style, moved my site and renamed it a few times, well, I realized that I didn’t care about how many followers I had. Same with Twitter. I care about the people who RT my tweets, comment on my blog, share my content, and the people who share good content that I share in turn. I care about the people I interact with. And you know what? If that’s only a handful of people, that’s fantastic. That’s why I’m out here on the internet–to make meaningful connections.

    Great post, Tiffany.

  4. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 5:02 am

    I agree. Over time, perspectives on these things do change. I think it’s interesting how there’s been a lot of talk about Dunbar’s number and that you can’t truly sustain 1000s of actual relationships.

    Anyway, like I said in the post, I’m not going to say numbers are meaningless. I think they certainly show something, but we need to think very hard about what they mean, and the other ways we define meaning and value in these terms and places.

  5. Tsudo Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Tiffany I can’t recommend your post highly enough.

    The bug had one great benefit - it allowed me to see which people I was following that obsessed over their follower numbers. The result of this enlightenment was one less follower. Me.

    I almost didn’t click the link for this post because I fully expected the same sky is falling mentality what a pleasant surprise to find such well grounded perspective.

    I have nothing to add beyond Bravo!

  6. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Tsudo - Thanks! It was very illuminating to see the reactions yesterday!

  7. Giles (Webconomist) Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Good post; the numbers game is, I think, a hangover of broadcast marketing days. That was, as TV, newspaper and radio are, all about hitting as many eyeballs as possible.

    As David Ogilvy said “I know advertising works, just not which 50%”

    My business is crunching the “numbers” on social media usage; but as we gather the numbers we also ask two key questions 1) is this a quality number or just a number? and 2) what about the people behind the numbers? What’s their value?

  8. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Interesting perspective. I think you’ve got something here. But I also think it’s probably somehting basic in human nature that makes us seek numbers.

    This comment also reminded me of the application of diffusion of innovation theory and how it’s playing out in social media, especially in therms of power/diffusion of power.

    It was several years ago that I joined Twitter, for example, and it was probably right out of the innovation stage and just into the early adopter stage (see this for a great graph and more details http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations)

    There were essentially just a handful of geeks with over 10,000-20,000 followers, and they dominated the top users list. And from what I recall, for the most part, they were very savvy digital innovators and worthy of the clout. Almost everyone I knew on Twitter followed them, because we wanted to watch and see how THEY woudl use the tools, because while the tool of Twitter was in early adoption, the practices, norms, and customs were still in infancy of innovator phase.

    Some independent developer built a search engine. A guy in Tulsa built an applicaiton to post pictures. An innovative user created the hashtag, then follow friday came… and boom. The innovation of use of the tool started to become more saturated as it moved through the innovation scale.

    It was fascinating to watch, because the more we all touted this cool list full of digital innovators, the more third-party applications made it easier to use, the more the popularity of Twitter grew, as did its user base (and with it, the ability for more users to follow people.) As the innovation diffused into millions, however, the meaning we could derive out of the numbers grew smaller, as people also learned how to “game” the system.

    More people had more followers as we moved into early majority, late majority, and now laggards.
    Sure, the site continues to grow, but the more numbers Twitter itself has, the less relative meaning numbers have for us users - because there are more numbers to have.

    Where this gets really interesting is to think of the bug that actually started this Twitter zero issue, which was that (for as long as anyone knows) there was a simple command any user could type to require someone else to follow them/. And you and I know all kinds of services that attempt to artifically boost numbers.

    So imagine for a moment that one day, you wake up to find you have a million Twitter followers. And so does everyone else. Do those numbers really mean everything, or does everyone get exhausted from the increasing chaos and choose to retreat to a smaller, more comfortable space where it is easier to actually engage with people?

  9. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Oh, here’s another good theory to apply to this: Scarcity.

    Numbers are really important for sites, especially venture funded ones that need to get valuation like Twitter. So they’re going to build sites that build numbers. Easy math, makes sense. Think of this as Abundance.

    But Scarcity is actually important to users, because we have to understand how relatively scarce a resource is in order to determine its value. So, the more abundance, the less scarcity, and the less relative value IF numbers are the only way we measure value.

    The less of a thing there is (Diamonds relative to air) the more valuable it is.

  10. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    OK wait, one more. That last example turned out to be a really important metaphor, because that’s all in terms of economics and capital. So in terms of capital, diamonds are more valuable than air.

    When you measure things under a different paradigm (biology), air is obviously the supreme resource, one of the most valuable on earth.

  11. Lanie James Says:
    May 13th, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Great post Tiffany! Like others - I noticed the bug and then I went to lunch because everyone was freaking out about their numbers. My only concern was losing the people I FOLLOW. To me - Twitter’s value is greatly in the content I gain from it - like #okstorms or finding out that every light down NW Expressway was out.

    My flow of information is what I feared was in danger!

  12. Wise Step Says:
    May 13th, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    What ever the bugs might hit Twitter its not gonna stop it from growing rapidly fast :) and yeah numbers do matters at times ;)

  13. Ari Herzog Says:
    May 14th, 2010 at 5:46 am

    Of course numbers mean something, Tiffany. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t have a retweet button!

  14. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 14th, 2010 at 10:45 am

    @ Lanie - I think that was very interesting in this case - that the functionality and reality of the numbers stayed the same; all that changed was the appearance of them. That’s what was so interesting and powerful to me about this bug.

    @ Wise Step - Definitely agree Twitter is growing but there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there on passive v. active users, so I think that’s an interesting thing to consider.

    @ Ari - Or, one could argue the Retweet button is functionality that allows people to spread and scale content. There’s certainly value in that. I’m not arguing by any means that numbers and metrics don’t have value; I’m saying that it is VERY hard to understand what they actually mean, to precisely measure them (and know how real those numbers are), etc. so do they deserve to be the primary way we measure social capital, etc.?

    I’m a measurement nut, so I love measuring, and I find a lot of personal value in knowing the size of my network. So I’m trying to argue actually for more meaning in that - what’s the meaning of the numbers in my network, and their worth, etc. To me, when I think about it in terms of what I value, I’m just trying to dig deeper.

  15. Tiffany Says:
    June 9th, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Great quote to end on. I think my opinion of these sites may be a little biase, because i’m convinced that they create false impressions of people and a false network of “friends”-mainly facebook. I think the numbers matter because the more you have the more important you look.

  16. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    June 11th, 2010 at 3:19 am

    @ Tiffany - Thanks for the comment! Impressions and image are certainly an interesting side to this coin. That’s why I still put so much value in the content behind people’s digital presence. The proof is often in the pudding. It’s not always volume that matters, but the ability to provoke thought and spark conversation.

    I’m really thinking a lot about some research I ran across recently about the ability of our brains to concentrate and think deeply being fundamentally changed by the saturated media environment of modern communication. That’s not to say we shouldn’t put ideas out there, but just another angle to think about this.