A while back, I wrote with dismay about the ranking systems like Klout, which purport to score your level of influence in social media. For a time, people seemed obsessed with their performance, and a whole new playing field of envy and competition blossomed. There were reports of Klout scores being considered in assessments of job applicants, and a general frenzy took hold. Fortunately, people seem to have grown bored with social ranking, just as the rankers seem to have growth bored with providing the incentives they once promised. Problem solved?
Not so fast.
While familiarity may make us less concerned with those opaque numerical rankings, there's still a numbers game being played in social media, and there's no mysterious algorithm at work. It's the hard and fast numbers of how many people follow you, how many people like you -- that's the new obsession.
Surely you've seen a tweet to the effect of, "Only xx followers needed to reach y. Won't you RT and help?" Or, if you've seen any companies promoting themselves on Facebook, no doubt you've been required to "like" them in order to take advantage of some special offer. But because words such as "friend" and "like" have such power, they seem to carry a weight far beyond there mere click of a button on one's screen; frankly, "following" someone seems truly disproportionate, unless you harbor dreams of being the next Jim Jones seeking companions on a field trip to Guyana.
I must confess, in my early days on Twitter, I fell victim to this psychological lure and trawled for followers by asking others to help be reach some round-numbered goal. I have also mentioned more than once on Twitter that if one becomes my friend on Facebook, they'll have access to content different than what's on my Twitter feed (which is true). But I've realized how desperate I may have sounded for approval, for achievement. "Friend" and "like" carry as much weight as in those early school days when you might spend 30 minutes on a playground slide with someone and announce to your parents only hours later that they were your new best friend. Especially peculiar about requests for new Twitter followers is that you can only make it to those who are already following you, so you're putting your online cohorts on the spot and asking them to endorse you with a retweet. Awkward! I have held the line on LinkedIn -- I am not "connected" to anyone with whom I have not had a meaningful professional interaction, with I thought was the point of that site.
The implied endorsement or emotional attachment that the masters of social media have caused us to use can indeed be awkward. I have no feelings whatsoever towards American Express beyond holding a Macy's charge card, but if I have to "like" them in order to help direct their philanthropy, I'm willing to pretend. I do not blindly "follow" the positions of the New York Times, but I do value their news updates, so I must be publicly perceived as a part of their coterie. A current Off-Broadway play, the title of which refers to a part of the anatomy that is uniquely male and unprintable in the aforementioned Times, now has people declaring that they like said appendage on Facebook, whatever their gender or sexual orientation, to my sophomoric amusement.
All of the social media sites make it easy to find out the number of people's friends, followers and likes and to know how far they may be from some milestone number. I will only urge people to engage with new contacts who I truly believe to be of genuine value; I am more likely to retweet worthy messages and let each person who reads it decide whether or not they want to see more from that source. But having suffered the ignominy of being chosen last on the playground for many years, having tried to shield my SAT scores from my peers lest I be labeled "a brain," I've grown to loathe the numerical rat race, and I've opted out of it. Desperation, as I learned in my dating years, is unattractive, and doesn't work.
If my tweets inform or amuse you, perhaps you'll follow me; if they annoy you, by all means don't subject yourself to me. If you enjoy pop culture videos (or want to meet up with my high school friends in virtual space), like me on Facebook, because that's what I can offer you there. But as we have all heard about the media for so many years, and I paraphrase here: "It's the content, stupid." And if my content is stupid, I completely understand why no one would follow me where I go online, why they wouldn't like me, or want to be my friend. Just as it was on the playground, I have to be worthy, or I'll have no one to play with. And the same is true, in turn, for each of you.
Follow Howard Sherman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hesherman