In the dustup over whether it is a good idea to sort Twitter posts by authority – defined as the number of followers one has – John Naughton rises above the cloud to see a larger fallacy in the discussion: The number of followers one has does not equal authority. It stands for influence (or I’d say, it is a proxy for attention – and then, in some cases, influence).
The problem Naughton sees is the same one that plagues analysis of online discussion using media metrics. In mass media, of course, big was better because you had to be big to own the press: Mass mattered. We still measure and value things online according to that scale, even though it is mostly outmoded. Indeed, we now complain about things getting too big – when, as Clay Shirky says, what we’re really complaining about is filter failure. That is why Loic Le Meur suggested filtering Twitterers by their followers; he’s seeking a filter.
The press was the filter. And the press came to believe its own PR and it conflated size with authority: We are big, therefore we have authority; our authority comes from our bigness.
But the press, of all parties, should have seen that this didn’t give them authority, for the press was supposed to be in the business of going out to find the real authorities and reporting back to what they said. This is why I always cringe when reporters call themselves experts. No, reporters are expert only at finding experts. Now to put this back in Twitter terms: Reporters don’t have authority. They have attention and possibly influence because they have so many followers. But that doesn’t give them authority. There’s the fallacy Naughton pinpoints.
“So we need to unpack the concept of ‘authority,’” Naughton argues.
One way of doing that is to go back to Steven Lukes’s wonderful book in which he argues that power can take three forms: 1. the ability to force you to do what you don’t want to do; 2. the ability to stop you doing something that you want to do; and 3. the ability to shape the way you think.
In my experience, the last interpretation comes closest to describing the authority of the blogosphere’s long tail. It’s got nothing to do with the number of readers a particular blog has, but everything to do with the intellectual firepower of the blog’s author.
Naughton argues that the number to manage on Twitter is the Twitter_index – that is, the proportion of followers to (what?) followees. He believes it ought to be 1.0 – that is, equal – “otherwise one gets into the online celebrity, power-law nonsense that Le Meur describes.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I’ll go halfway there. When I wrote for TV Guide and People, I supposedly had an audience northward of 20 million. I’ll hasten to say that was utter bullshit on many levels – the idea that one could trust syndicated research to count readers (as opposed to purchasers) and the presumption that every reader read every page (or ad – which is the real bubble in old media). Still, those were the numbers we bragged about, as if they gave us authority.
Dare I say that this blog gives me more authority – in Naughton’s and Lukes’ terms – than those publications did? My hackneyed example of Dell Hell reached more people in a more meaningful way than any review of Babylon 5 (though I still get in trouble for panning it).
But note well that the authority in Dell Hell was not me. I didn’t have authority (I didn’t write about PCs or pretend to any expertise in customer service). It was my message that had authority or at least relevance, as that was the reason it was passed around. And it was the passing around that invested it with authority.
So to that extent, Le Meur’s not wrong when he tries to find a way to express and calculate the idea that it’s not the author who holds authority but his or her audience. But his critics are also right when they say that number of followers won’t get him there. I think there is no easy measure, but if it exists it will be found instead in relationships: seeing how an idea spreads (because it is relevant and resonates) and what role people have in that (creating the idea, finding it, spreading it, analyzing it) and what one thinks of those people (when MrTweet.net tells me that John Naughton follows someone, I’ll see more authority in that than, say, whom Robert Scoble follows – no offense, Robert – because Naughton is so highly selective). That is what the totality of the press-sphere will also look like as various players add varying value to add up to a whole (and in 3D, the sphere will look different to each of us, so one-size-fits-all measurements will become even more meaningless).
Part of the problem in the Twitter discussion is also that the number of followers is, in the end, a proxy for celebrity while links – which Google PageRank and, for better or worse, Technorati value – come closer to measuring at least relevance. As old media faced more and more competition it became more and more about fame (and that was when access to the celebrity became more valuable than access to the audience). The internet’s value is that it is more about relevance. So I think the reason some people reacted so much from the gut against Le Meur’s suggestion is that it unwittingly corrupted the new world with the crass celebrity of the old. The last thing we need or want in the web is Nielsen ratings.
: LATER: Case in point: Tim O’Reilly kindly retweets my link to this post and then I watch it get re-retweeted again and again. That happens because it’s O’Reilly retweeting and he has authority not becauase he has the most followers – though he has many – but because he’s smart and respected (he has authority); it also happens, perhaps, because my post is relevant to a discussion. Message + spreader (or author) comes closer to authority than mere reader ratings.