It may sound cute and sensational to write a headline like this, but for Linus Edwards’ recent piece Numbers, I don’t consider it wholly inappropriate. In that article, he first painted a picture of a microblogging service devoid of quantified metrics: no one would have any idea how many followers a given individual had, nor would the person in question. No longer would the best jokes, most insightful comments, and noteworthy observations come from a select few with follower counts in the six, seven, or eight digits, but could instead come from those individuals as well as the everyday user. I won’t lie: it sounded nice, and for a short while, I was completely on board with this suggestion. However, then he took it a step further.
After proposing a less easily-quantified social network, Linus then went on to remove all but the most basic social interactions from its supposed model. Thus, whereas Twitter — the anti-platform in his piece — not only affords its users access to basic measurements that often correlate to popularity as well as the ability to favorite and retweet posts, antiTwitter would strip away all but the most basic of functionalities. That is, this hypothetical platform would facilitate nothing more than conversations between individuals. Of this, however, I am not so enthusiastic.
There is a certain story we all love to tell, one about the little guy who comes into a space dominated by giants and manages to climb his way up so far that he not only reaches their level, but may even surpass it. And like the plot line from which all others are derived, this feel-good story applies to Twitter as well — and doubly so for those currently at the bottom, staring wistfully at those at the top. But while removing follower counts on either side, or both, may take a step towards leveling the playing field ever so slightly by placing greater emphasis on the content rather than the person saying it, I am skeptical that this is an actual problem.
In my eyes, Harshil Shah’s opinions have the same inherent value as Ben Bajarin’s even though the former’s followers number less than 150, while the latter’s come in at just over 6,000. It falls squarely on my shoulders to decide on a per-tweet basis who has formed the better opinion, and the same goes for many others: Andrew Fields has 41 followers, yet has made some fantastic contributions to tech conversations of late, and so I follow him and Ben Thompson both; even though Dan Benjamin has significantly more followers than Ben Alexander, given my personal interactions with Ben, I would be slightly more inclined to follow his advice than Dan’s. And I could continue through the list of people I follow, but the point would remain the same: I don’t judge the validity of anything anyone says by their supposed popularity, and I’m not sure that’s quite the case with anyone else either. I don’t doubt that it happens in some circles, but — just as you must choose the audience you wish to attract — are those the people you really want to follow you at all?
And then there’s the issue of favorites and retweets: whereas the effect of removing follower accounts on my Twitter experience would be just shy of nonexistent, I rely heavily on these: when Horace deems something worthy of sharing with those who have similar interests as him, I want to see him simultaneously share that with me while giving the original author credit in the form of a retweet; when Ben Bajarin makes a wry comment about the state of tech journalism in light of a recent data point and associated malformed article, in a situation when a simple “ha ha” would seem sarcastic and reductive, a gold star shows him that I appreciated this remark, for I marked it as a favorite. There may not be analogs to these things in real life, we don’t go around handing out gold stars every time someone says something funny, but we do smile and chuckle; we do go around and say, “did you hear about what Horace said the other day?” So when Linus proposes a new social network, or suggests that Twitter and its imposed method of social interaction are depriving us of our humanity, I can’t help but feel that is the wrong solution, and the wrong place at which to point our condemnatory fingers. In my mind, the problem Linus grapples with here is a systemic one in today’s society of hyper-connected individuals; and removing follower counts, retweets, and favorites will do little to affect positive change here.
Just one final note: lately it would seem to be that I have been very critical of — or even harsh towards — Linus and his writing, and that’s not all the case: while some of the things he writes I — obviously — don’t quite agree with, I still consider him a fantastic writer with some very interesting thoughts and opinions to share. I still follow him after all this time, after all, and thus these disagreements should not be taken as personal attacks, but rather the natural progression of discourse amongst two people with differing opinions.