The antiquated, “eyeball” media model is screwing with our online behavior.

I had a fun brainstorming session recently with Pierre Omidyar (@pierre). One of the things we talked about was how social software’s design has impacted freindsshow we behave online. The metrics companies choose to put in front of us are really meaningful since people optimize their behavior around those numbers.

In the consumer space–because most companies decide to follow Google into “free” land– they fall trap to optimizing for the dusty, century-old media business model: get a ton of viral, sticky eyeballs, then sell ad space.

Number of friends, is the metric on big kitchen sink networks like Facebook, Myspace, etc. On Twitter it’s number of followers. And you can see the resulting behavior every day. As soon as someone joins Facebook, it’s a race to add as many friends to cart as possible to get that number up. Just look at Follow Friday. There are even applications developed to help you game your Follower numbers, so you can quickly achieve the status of 23,083 meaningless followers.

Here’s why Friending and Following doesn’t work

Besides not actually being part of an environment tailor made around meaningful connections, the other reason that Friending, Following and other social number don’t work is that no one wants to give you negative feeback. Sure, Robert Scoble stopped following 106,000 people but most of us don’t want to unfriend, unfollow, or unanything that would send a negative message to someone else. So, while we focus on driving our social numbers up as high as possible, those numbers end up being meaningless. They don’t reflect reality. In real life people come in and out of our life. People we vouch for at one point, we can’t vouch for at another point. Our friends change. People we want to meet change. Because the kitchen-sink networks optimize their numbers around mass-use in order to sell advertising, they can’t solve this problem.

The numbers we track in our online/offline life

After my conversation with Pierre, it got me thinking about the numbers we track in our online and offline life. Since, Blackbox Republic is focused on fusing online/offline realities together, arriving at measurements that help enable meaningful relationships has been at the forefront of our development. The chart below is a visual representation of the delta between how we currently account for our online and offline social. As you can see, it’s pretty huge. I’d be interested on your ideas on how to bridge it more effectively.


  • C.C. Chapman

    I agree that the way people currently “lunchbox” friends (a term from @DYKC at is not the right way to measure things.

    While I’m a very open networking and love connecting with as many people as possible, it is still most important to keep in contact with the ones that matter the most and that is hard to do.

    Your chart is an interesting one. I don’t understand the need or why of having Weight and Death in there. Those two through me for a loop.

    But, as usual you are pushing the thinking and that is what is fun. You’ve certainly got me wondering what else I’d add to your graph.

  • David Spark


    Love the chart. The definition of “friend” has definitely changed since the adoption of social networks. Think just eight years ago. What would have happened if you told someone you had 439 friends? They probably would think you’re an asshole for keeping track of your friends, and two that you’re lying.

    Today, you announce you have 439 friends and many people in social media would say, “Why so few? I’ve got 2,000.”

    You are right that people are hesitant to unfriend, but it does happen. I wrote a story for Mashable about it. Read “12 Great Tales of De-Friending.”

  • Leonard Klaatu

    Well, I certainly do get both weight and death, but I’m older than CC. Shoot, I may even be weightier.

    My personal opinion is that it’s highly likely 60-70% (maybe more) of the people I follow would likely be quite uninteresting if I were able to sit down with them in person. I equally suspect I would bore 60-70% of the people who follow me, possibly more.

    Where would you slide in the number of prospects or customers? Money?

    I tire of this junior high school popularity contest of adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers. I’d much rather have fewer people inside my circle, but have a growing relationship with them. It’s hard to pursue deeper relationships with people who are chasing numbers though.

    Between “list building,” “traffic generation” and “adding friends” it seems we’re losing relationships and depth while we gain numbers.

    Good stuff.


  • Aaron Strout

    Sam – I couldn’t agree with you more. And while the company I work for doesn’t necessarily measure the number of people I’ve had sex with or gray hairs (thank goodness), you’re spot on in terms of diving deeper into the numbers that matter. At the end of the day, size “might” matter but very often it’s much more about the quality than the quantity.

    Thanks for the insightful post.


  • NameTerrillific

    While my follower base grows steadily each week. I’m starting to purge the meaningless followers and focus on the quality tweeters who I really like to interact with daily. Makes for a much more meaningful experience and I don’t have sort through all the noise.

  • http://Trueimpact Fausty |

    Some of us don’t “measure” how important we are in life – online or off – based on quantitative stacks of “mine is bigger than yours” Freudian social currency.

    Not only will I gladly trade a score of sycophantic hangers-on for one true friend, I’ll trade the whole self-styled rat race for a life that has true impact on a larger, longer, wider scale. How does one “measure” the good one does, at that scale? One doesn’t, because one is more focused on the act of doing than on the back-patting process of claiming credit.

    “It is only the great-hearted who can be true friends. The mean and cowardly, can never know what true friendship means.”
    – Charles Kingsley

    “Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of the ‘rat race’ is not yet final.”
    Hunter S. Thompson

    Fausty |

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  • Stacey Monk

    In the nonprofit space (and in every corporate and public sector environment I’ve worked) metrics often create perverse incentives. I recently heard a story from a friend working for a nonprofit trying to demonstrate scale to potential funders. Because scale was such a focus for the organization, they featured hundreds of “projects” on their site, but she was sad to admit that she couldn’t point to even a single project that was creating real impact.

    Kiva founder Matt Flannery recently wondered whether Kiva was “commoditizing rather than dignifying” their loan recipients. ( While he wasn’t discussing metrics in particular, this seems to me a potential byproduct of massive scale in social initiatives, and one that must be countered with more qualitative metrics that ensure our efforts to do good don’t, in the end, dehumanize those we intend to help.

    This “bigger is better” phenomenon is particularly American. We routinely forgo quality for quantity in our zeal for overconsumption and supposed efficiencies/economies of scale.

    It seems to me that many of the measures we use in the offline world are more subjective and qualitative than the objective and quantitative. I don’t really focus on the number of kisses so much as the degree to which the last one made my toes tingle 😉 Regardless of what my weight is, am I happy with it? I think more subjective, human-input likert-scale responses may be the bridge you’re looking for to make it possible to arrive at metrics that enable human relationships. Like the old corporate balanced scorecard approach, a blend of subjective/objective and qualitative/quantitative metrics may help ensure participants in systems don’t optimize for a particular metric by neglecting another…

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  • Marc Meyer

    I don’t know and I mean that. I agree that the numbers game is completely arbitrary. But saying that friending or following does or doesn’t work might be stretching it. It works for some just fine. It seems that those that have the most problem with it are those that are hoping for a glass bubble utopian version of what social should be. I’m one of those and the fact is, that just ain’t gonna happen. Just like spam will stop tomorrow. Ain’t gonna happen.

    However, I look at your chart and it seems like we’re moving(or is it you?) towards slicing and dicing everything in our lifestreams. Like we’re keeping score, because that’s what we do. and you know what? We do. We keep score. I keep score of your shit and you keep score of mine. We keep score of theirs.

    We are a metrics driven people. And sadly we let it define us.

    Unfortunately metrics should not determine or enable human relationships and yet it seems that certain elements of social- do just that.

    Keep thinking Sam. it’s good for all of us.

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