How Many Friends Do You Have?

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Connections are the new currency of personal branding.

Whether it’s the number of “friends” you have on Facebook, the number of subscribers on Friendfeed or your follower count on Twitter — for the Internet famous, numbers speak volumes.

Listen to recent episodes of TWiT or Diggnation, podcasts that chronicles the news of the web. Scan the blogosphere. Look around. Everyone from Leo Laporte (Formerly TechTV) and John C. Devorak (PC Mag), to Alex Albrecht and Kevin Rose (Digg), all the way to Jason Calacanis (Mahalo) and most famously Robert Scoble are doing everything in their power to boost their numbers.

Are You Connected?

It used to be that your prowess in the realm of the web was measured by the traffic to your blog. That was before digital identity splintered, fragmented and was spread out across a dozen different platforms. Now, it’s not so much how many feed subscribers you have or how much traffic your page is getting, but how much exposure your personal brand receives. How many real people your message is reaching. How big your megaphone is.

No one can have a real, personal relationship with 20k+ friends (most of the people mentioned in this post have at least that many). No one can hold 20k different conversations. That isn’t the point. That has never been the point. There are only three practical reasons to get into the game of collecting connections:

1. It’s power. Every single extra person who chooses to follow your digital identity is one more person who you can directly market yourself to. It’s one more ear bent in your direction, one more set of eyes who — unlike a fly by night blog visitor — is willing to accept your personal endorsement.

2. It’s a score. Who doesn’t want to feel like they are bigger, more important or otherwise more popular than his peers? Being able to show off your numbers, being able to see yourself at the top of every leaderboard proves unequivocally how strong your community is and how important your personal brand is. In a world where all of these factors will eventually turn into ad dollars, it would be crazy for the web famous not to constantly work to build these numbers up.

3. It’s ESP. For those among the Internet famous who friend-back those who friend them, these platforms provide a limited form of ESP. You have, at your finger-tips, the thoughts, memes, and conversations of thousands upon thousands of clever people. If information is currency, this much information is a treasure trove.

The New Black

Before you ask, none of this is a bad thing.

Everyone is still playing the exact same game that they have always played. They want your eyeballs to see their message. The only difference now is that the parameters have changed.

As the business of the Internet evolves, we need ways to measure how far our web extends. We need ways to quantify our own fame, and all of these social networks have given the most powerful players in the field a way to do it. Where once you were hamstrung by the fickle mistress that is your blog, now you can develop micro-communities around anything. Your fame isn’t limited to how well you produce text, but how well you communicate — how well you produce context.

With that in mind, now I turn it to you.

How important are these social networks? How important is this movement towards being “friended” by the world? Is there real, concrete, value in thousands of peripheral connections or is it just another trend — another flash in the pan?

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  • Thnaks for the tips. It is what I was looking for.

  • On myspace i 45 friends, on facebook about 400

  • i havn't started on facebook yet bit on myspace, i have over 300 friends in my interested field. Nice but gettinghard to communicate wth them all due to new captcha code preventing bots to work

  • Wizeguyztees

    I am real glad this topic was posted. I have a new t shirt site up and have been trying to do everything mentioned above for traffic. I am starting to wonder though if I am wasting my time by spending an hour or two on facebook gaining friends, or adding friends to stumble in hopes they stumble my page, etc. I have noticed some added traffic but it is hard to say it will pay off or they will return. I am still unsure but don't want to be left behind if it does evolve like the telephone.

  • This is simply the result of a new form of media. Those early adopters have become viewed as the "vanguard" or the "elite" and thus more people listen when they speak. It doesn't make them right or wrong, just heard.

    These are not their friends anymore than the bulk of my 500+ followers on twitter are my friends. They are people who are interested in what we as communicators have to say (or in the case of spammers in bots, how many people are listening).

    I hate auto-follow, open-networking and random "friending" because it is disingenuous. While I follow all of the people you mentioned on Twitter, it is because I am interested in their point of view (out of all of them Calacanis is the only one that has ever responded to an @.) I make a concerted attempt to respond to every message I receive through socnets, and most of the names you mentioned most certainly don't do that (not that they probably could). What sucks is that by accumulating that size of following, they are inevitably consolidating their own group think.

    This is nothing new (as I am sure it's not too often that Dan Rather, Bob Costas, etc... responds to fan letters/emails), but it is certainly unfortunate. SocNets are supposed to increase dialogue; when dialogue becomes an impossibility, group-think becomes a true issue.

  • sbspalding

    I agree. Getting that many followers (if you don't manage -how- you communicate), makes it all the easier to buy into your own hype.

    I wonder if there is a point where your following becomes so large that this trend reverses on itself.

  • Well, it's either the tipping point or the point at which you jump the shark. I think there are probably quite a few people who have stopped following some of these people due to the utter lack of communication.

    As I do not pay an incredible amount of attention to my twitter-feed, friendfeed, etc... on a minute by minute basis, I suppose that it doesn't bother me too much. But there are times where I would at least appreciate acknowledgment of a message.

    Case in point, I sent a message to Brian Solis via twitter complimenting him on the introduction he wrote for the book PR 2.0. Now Brian has many more followers than I (and rightfully so), but I would expect at least a "Thank You", like the one I got from Geoff Livingston when I sent him a comment on his book Now is Gone (to which Mr. Solis penned the intro.)

    I guess what bothers/concerns me is that some of the "social media elite" are becoming unreachable (or at least appearing to be unreachable) to anyone outside of their immediate cadre of influencers. That is exactly what is not supposed to happen, or at least that's what I thought we were trying to prevent with this medium.

  • sbspalding

    Whether by choice or by chance, it is definitely becoming harder to reach those who are ostensibly preaching the gospel of communication.

    Occasionally we wonder why the pundits sometimes feel so disconnected from the nuts and bolts of it all. I think your point is a big part of that.

  • Maggy Young

    Think of this one anthropologically. 'Everyone is still playing the exact same game that they have always played.' And further back than maybe you meant Steve. Relate the syndrome to the need to form groups which focus around a leader. Robert Scobie's & all 20,000 friends could be the equivalent of the core followers of a political party or pressure group, before that you had groups formed around tribal leaders or princes. Even apes & chimps display the same patterns of group formation & the one with the most friends is the most powerful. Seems that prehistoric behaviour is alive & well & has transferred itself to the new technology -
    the need to form & be part of large or small groups, the need to form allegiances either strong or weak, close or distant, the need for some groups to have a leader in terms of a powerful or influential person, the tribal wars which break out in the blogosphere eg. Scobie / Winer/ Arrington. On-line friends & followers = traditional human behaviour patterns arrived on the web.

  • I am getting new Facebook friend requests daily and I'm still not used to this 'frank' approach by strangers... Meanwhile, I feel that the real friends that I have, well, I've kind of lost them a bit , since they've started using Facebook to communicating with me.

    From a 'business' point of view, I still rather collect email addresses for a newsletter using eWeber and communicating with them using unique, purely professional content.

    Facebook is however a great tool to invite people to my website...

  • i dunno how many friends i have left, for me friends come and go :(

  • My favorite way to keep in touch w/ my friendsi s linkedin. It has a more professional feel.

  • I totally agree with the point that "No one can have a real, personal relationship with 20k+ friends". All this form of 'marketing' has done for us is allowed the mesages spread virually at a much faster rate. This has been really useful when trying to run an event. But when trying to sell a product it has been pretty much useless.

    It's like PR as soon as it's not really newsworthy it stops having any effect.

  • In the case of friends, connections, followers - both online and off - totals are less important than ratios.

    I think no matter what you're doing, if the total number of people befriending you is dramatically greater than the total number of people you've befriended, something's not right.

    When I see this occurring in my own social networks, it's a signal for me to listen more and talk less.

  • sbspalding

    I see that too. It does beg the question, whether socnets are redefining "friend" Instead of being people you're interested in personally, it might be people whose ideas interest you.

    Maybe it's all the same thing, but I don't know.

  • It takes a lot of work to develop lasting and true relationships off and online. One tweet or a comment in your FB does make you a friend. It makes you an acquaintance, i.e.someone I might tweet back but not have any connection to other than 140 characters or less. Its disingenuous of someone to create that level of attachment to you when all it is a numbers game. Much like the "popular" kid in high school, it was all about knowing them and having them wave back at you. Other than that it was an empty relationship.

    I put effort in my relationships by taking on only as much as I can handle. I have 1/100th of the number of Scoble does , my goal is to nurture those relationships,not have them to push me up the ladder.

    Social networking will evolve the same way the telephone has, the bigger your rolodex the more connected you are. But if you had to flag the ones you have a real friendship with, it will be a very small group. It's the quality of your group, not the quantity that will be important to you.

  • sbspalding

    The last point is a brilliant observation. At the end of the day, we still separate those who we are "friends" with from those who we really care about.

    I think a lot of this is an extension of a common human behavior. Think about how many people you "know" and how many of them you would call friends. I bet it follows a similar pattern.

    Great insight as always Ophelia.

  • I think it's natural for people to want to feel as is if they are a valued part of a community. We do it offline and our personalities online are just an extension of that. You feel validated when someone converses with you. Ego trip? Maybe... but it just seems more like a basic human need to connect to me.

    In a lot of cases it's more convenient and easier to make more connections online than it is in meatspace. With the way services are developing to facilitate it, I don't think the evolution of social networking into the state it is in currently is trivial. It will keep increasing in importantance to everyone as it becomes another standard method of communication (mainstream).

  • sbspalding

    I agree, mostly. Like I mentioned, it is exactly the same reason that a year ago people waved around their RSS feed subscriber numbers.

    "Nothing has changed" can be extended all the way back to why we blog. It's for the same reason that we join clubs or participate in any social gathering. We really want to be heard, and more than that we want to be validated by people who we care about.

    I think I disagree about the mainstream thing. From what I've seen, regular people don't "get" the idea of having thousands of friends. They'd much rather have a smaller set of "'real friends" rather than tons of internet buddies.

    Maybe that will change, who knows.

    Great blog by the way. :)

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