Follower Hyperinflation

All things digital are inherently vulnerable to inflation.

Spam takes advantage of the limits of digital interaction to create scale from the (previously) unscalable, then profit from it. We normally apply this to email, but it could apply to Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube views. It could apply to pageviews to your website or anything else where scale can create money or reputation.

When there is no sacrifice, cost of “production” is near zero, which opens up new avenues of profit. This was the principle of Chris Anderson’s Free, but it’s also the principle by which spammers make money. Both take advantage of the ability of technology to bring the cost of scale dramatically downward, but we don’t talk about the other side of it.

Anyway, this same characteristic of digital technology is what allows people to have 1,000 Facebook friends. The upkeep cost of a friend is near zero, so I can have as many as I like due to reduction in friction. Since social network head in two directions, either more popular (towards ubiquity) or less popular (towards obliteration) every popular service experiences friend/follower hyperinflation which only the most popular can keep up with.

There are four things that I want to mention about this.

Scale divides the friend-poor from the friend-rich.

If you start off with a platform, or you start early, you can keep accelerating at the same rate the service does, keeping you in the top tier of users. But almost no one can do this. Inflation follows, where the number of connections accelerates exponentially while your own go up only marginally. This means you don’t have the same access you did yesterday, just the same way your dollar doesn’t go as far as it did yesterday, either.

To keep up, you must accelerate

You must find a way to keep your channel popular or risk irrelevance.

This may mean you need to take advantage of scale, leveraging existing advantages to keep yourself afloat when 100 friends yesterday has the same value as 200 today. It may also mean you need to gain access to larger platforms to give you more credibility or access to a larger audience. Basically, you only win by giving in to the “more” mindspace by reaching more people, or the same people more often.

The rise of “friend upkeep services”

As more and more people use social networks to upkeep their online presences, a need to upkeep these friendships will occur, and services will arise to fill that need. Facebook shows you your friends’ birthdays for this very reason, and that’s why sending a birthday note on Facebook is not a measure of closeness.

But Facebook and other companies will take it further, mentioning to you that you haven’t talked to someone in a while or maybe eventually suggesting things to say or sending automatic updates. In a sense this is one of the “services” foursquare offers users; same with Farmville etc.

The final measure of success is happiness

None of this matters, because none of it will make you happy. Only real friends will, and those require communal sacrifice to upkeep, and cannot be scaled.

At the end of the day, we’re still human. Our emotions can’t and won’t replace one great friend with 100 acquaintances; it’s simply impossible to create the same feeling, endorphins, etc. and will probably inevitably lead to depression of at least sub-par enjoyment of life.

My point with all of this is to understand that although all of these forces surround us at all times, and the speed of the world accelerating at a point no one can really keep up with, the things that make us strong, healthy, happy, and free are the same as they were two thousand years ago. And those are the things we should focus on.

The end. Make sense?






22 responses to “Follower Hyperinflation”

  1. Joseph Doughty Avatar

    The definition of “friend” is being redefined by social media. I like the concept of scalability where inflation outpaces our ability to keep up with it. However, unlike monetary inflation the consequences of loosing touch with “friends” you hardly know is minor. I think Pareto’s principle takes over:
    Of 1000 friends 200 may be true and interactive. Focus the attention on those 200 and you are bound to get a much better response.

    1. Julien Avatar

      Jeff, that is a solid argument. However, having a crazy high number of friends is powerful enough that it’s worth some attention– enough that it can be a concern where to spend your time, and that it can confuse people as to where the real value is (personally or professionally).

  2. Steve Haase Avatar

    I see online “friends” as being more “people with whom I share certain interests.” I find interacting with them valuable because we help each other learn, grow, connect, and succeed, both in business and in life.

    But I agree that at the end of the day, nothing is more important than the people in whom you’re truly invested, and who are invested in you.

    And at the same time, these relationships *can* exist online, as mentors and coaches sometimes only know us virtually.

    Plus there are studies which show that interacting via social media produces similar (if not sometimes greater) surges of oxytocin–the bonding hormone–as in-person interactions. So I do think this whole discussion is fascinating in the extreme and very valuable to pursue.

  3. Azzurra Camoglio Avatar

    It make sense.
    I have a lot of ‘online’ friends and I consider they really my friends. But at the end of the day, there are things that only a real friend can do. Hug if you’re sick, dance with you, take you home if you drink too much, slap if necessary. Be actually with you, at the same time, in the same place.

  4. Ryan G Avatar

    Yes this makes sense.

    Social Media, which I would argue is really more of a temporary term people have agreed to use to identify websites designed for engagement rather than for commerce, definitely has put new meaning to the idea of “friends”. Who knows what we will call this next year.

    From a marketing perspective, a friend on a social network is a ear or an eyeball you have a chance at getting your product or business in front of. From a social perspective, I don’t know what a friend is in social media. It’s really nothing except for the time you put in to each friend individually which seems to be your point Julien – that in the end, the things we require for our happiness are the things we contribute to a relationship, be it virtual or in the physical.

    To be clear, let’s take your blog. Julien, I don’t know you but I like the way your mind thinks and how you articulate it, and so it probably produces a surge of oxytocin in my brain as Steve H suggests. But it does not satisfy the emotional needs that a true friendship can.

    Given that, I would follow you on Twitter, which I do, but I wouldn’t be your friend on Facebook, at least not until we got to know one another more. This says a lot about what Facebook has to offer, although not everyone shares that role Facebook plays in their life.

  5. Chris Brogan... Avatar

    Here’s the most difficult thing I’m facing:

    The fact that I have several thousand connections means that all my friends, and/or people who feel a very strong sense of closeness to me, can see my comings and goings on the social network. When they observe such, they get the realization that I haven’t spoken to them lately. This brings me top of mind, but in a negative way. When this happens, said friend either stews, feels bad about me, or reaches out and says I’m a crappy friend for not connecting much.

    The thing is, pre-social-networks-everywhere, we did this all the time. It’d be perfectly normal not to talk with someone for a half a year or a year. It’s just the ebb and flow of how humans interrelate. But because we’re all wired, because people see me come and go off their stream from time to time, a number of them get the extra special feeling of disappointment that comes from not being in my circle of people I connect with frequently.

    Some simple math:

    If I spent 6 minutes a day with 100 Twitter friends, that’s 10 hours.

    Only 100. If I gave ONLY 100 people some of my time, that’s 10 hours right there. No email. No work. No writing. No family life. 10 hours gone just to some tweets to individuals.

    Email: I get just under 600 a day. Of those, I process about 120 myself. If I give each of those just 1 minute (and email takes much longer than tweets), that’s another 2 hours.

    I’m up to 12 hours just to service a few hundred friends and colleagues.

    We are setting ourselves up to be disappointments to many. Or that’s the feeling I’m getting way down deep in my gut and my bones. I feel it more and more every day. I feel people growing weary of the “Chris doesn’t have time” side of the Internet.

    But this is unnatural. We didn’t used to have hundreds of thousands of contacts. Dunbar. 150. Right?

    I think this is an even bigger/crazier thing than what’s covered here. I think there will be books written specifically on the negatives of this. I think we’ll see new mental disorders around this.

    Overreacting? Oh, I say no.

    Me? I just keep trying.

  6. Robert McIntosh (@thirstforwine) Avatar

    I see your point, but I think that some of this can be overcome in the same way we do IRL – friends should “expire” in the same way that friends we no longer get in contact with (as opposed to those we only see occasionally) are effectively lost.

    There is an in-built inflation if links, once-made, never disappear. What if the systems forced you to “put up or shut up”? If you didn’t @ , RT or DM someone on twitter, should the link between you not be deemed irrelevant, and be removed? It would keep things fluid and fresh

    It means our friend Chris Brogan could NOT follow 100,000 people, but then he doesn’t really anyway.

    But 1,000,000 could follow him, as long as they replied, retweeted or interacted with him, and each day it would be a new, continually refreshed 1m users … and if it started to diminish, we’d see the effect!

    Just a thought

  7. Warren Whitlock Avatar

    I love the way you think.. even if some of your math is dead wrong.

    If the channel goes from 100 to 200 and I have the same number of connections.. I have the same number of connections, not half.

    We’re not talking “market share” these are PEOPLE.

    I GET what you mean, and agree with all but that one bit which I see as assuming that rank or status has anything to do with people connecting to people.

    Chris added to the issue, but I won’t tell him that. He never has any time for me anymore


  8. Buffy Griffin Avatar
    Buffy Griffin

    Very good points!

    I usually send an occasional FB/Twitter blast to my friends reminding them how busy I am working and growing my business but, that I hadn’t forgotten them and I still love them. To all my closest friends, I still interact with them when time permits us to.

  9. Connie Crosby Avatar

    Amazing post, Julien. You have given us lots to consider!

    I think it comes down to expectations. I don’t expect to be close with everyone I follow or who follow me. Instead it gives them a little chance to see a bit more of what I am up to than they could previously, and I can jump in to get updates on them without having to demand an email or phone call update on a regular basis. And then if/when we ever actually *do* connect in person–whether via Skype video or grabbing a coffee together–we can bypass some of the pleasantries and have more time to get to deeper things. And in this way these avenues bring me perhaps more friends than I had previously as I become familiar with more people. But it’s just a reality that we can’t be BFFs with all these amazing people we come across (and there *are* a lot of amazing people I wish I could get to know better in my networks!).

    What it comes down to–I don’t worry about trying to connect personally with everyone. I let it happen organically–if I want to seek out the odd individual to connect with, or get an invitation to talk with someone in my network. I try to stay in touch with clients (even if it is just the annual card) and friends (even if it is coffee or lunch once in a while). I don’t stress about the numbers. If there is someone I really want to see often, get to know better, I try to find a project for us to work on, whether presenting together, writing an article together, or working on a committee together.

    I find I have a harder time scaling myself up to get the client work done, since they are coming to me for my expertise rather than a range of services for which I can hire others to help me.

  10. Clay Hebert Avatar

    Great post, Julien. This problem will only grow.

    I tell people:

    “It’s not about how many followers you have. It’s about how many would let you crash on their couch, bail you out of jail or invest in your idea.”

    To the extent that social scales that tighter group (and I would argue that it does), all the better.

  11. Nicole O'Reilly Avatar

    Really interesting discussion.

    Are we all trying to spread ourselves too thin by ‘connecting’ with as many people as we can?

    For me the line gets blurry between who I am as an individual and who I am as a business person – and I don’t necessarily want to share all of those things with all people.

    My ‘true’ friends know all the good and bad (and the ugly too!), but many of my work and online connections only ‘see’ the business side of me.

  12. Marjorie Clayman Avatar

    I think I am going to have to respond to this via a blog because otherwise my comment box will extend to China. Suffice to say that the longer I learn on Twitter, the more posts and thoughts like this resound.

    One mode of inflation that does not require deep philosophical thought? Ohhhh the spam bots. They are getting more and more clever. Frighteningly so. I am not a big name by any means, but last night a spam bot sent out a tweet that said “if you want to write good blog posts, just RT these people.” My name, along with others, was included along with a link. I thought it seemed too good to be true, and sure enough my lovely Mac warned me not to proceed further. Meanwhile, if folks do, it looks like I’m associated with bugs and worms and mean things. With “friends” like these…

  13. Michael Avatar

    The drop-down box telling me how many readers you have, and preventing me from easily reading your page, is a major problem when it comes to your blog’s readability. Just a little constructive feedback which I know is unrelated to this great post. If you know it is annoying and give me a tiny, reduced-font button to get ride of it, then why do this to your readers in the first place?

    1. Julien Avatar

      And Michael, thank you for your comment about the dropdown. I’m looking at alternatives as we speak.

  14. John Wall Avatar

    Good points for discussion – yes, there is definitely a first mover advantage. Getting in early and fast pays off, the only risk here is that to be a first mover you have to try all the new stuff, and for every twitter there are a bunch of Plurks and Waves.

    I don’t know if I buy the constant acceleration, I think the fact that the growth is exponential plays into this. You can be consistent in the quality of your content but when you hit the inflection point it grows on its own.

    “Friend Upkeep” is kind of a contradiction, if you are at this stage, these are not friends, they are prospects of some kind and you are providing them info they want but there is not a 2-way relationship going on. If the bottom 80% of Brogan’s twitter followers vanished tomorrow, his life would be no different aside from less in the inbox.

    If running up your numbers gives you hapiness, that’s great, but don’t think that the number alone gives you credibility. I always fall back on the example of Napster – once millions of users, now nothing.

  15. Ian Avatar

    Define friendship.

    The unique perspective of friendship between people is what I feel blurs most lines. I agree with Chris in that we have created an impossible network to maintain between work, personal friends, family and then social friends.

    There is a generational consideration with your post. And by generation I don’t mean an age definition. I see a new definition of generation being people that were active at different stages of technology.

    So. Take the last 5 years. In the last 5 years alone we have seen the birth of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and more… Regardless of age the people that have been a part of this time have really blazed the trail. We screwed a lot up and also created some amazing things.

    Regardless of age, we have all been kids in the social candy store together for the first time and have lived through the race for 1,000,000 followers. But what now? Suddenly we are looking around at each other and wondering what this all means.

    We have created a social pressure that is impossible to maintain, the worst part is that this pressure has a momentum that is manifesting exponentially.

    We have passed the point of being connected. To the point of it being a drug! Its depressing seeing couples in restaurants both on their mobiles… I know because that’s my wife and I! Only lately have we vowed to put them down for ‘us’ time.

    Written from my iPad, in bed, wih my wife beside me on her iPhone updating facebook!

    What now?

  16. Larry Avatar

    Looks like you struck a real nerve with this one, Julien – way to go!

  17. Monique Elwell Avatar


    I really love your conclusions about happiness and the discount that we apply to Facebook’s birthday wishes, but I have to humbly bolster Warren’s point regarding your foundational comments. (Which were really a wonderful lead in from a literary standpoint.)

    To use simple math (I’m a simple gal, what can I say?) If Facebook has 10,000 total people in their network and you’ve got 100 friends, you’ve got 1% of the total or “market share” as Warren calls it.

    If Facebook now has 20,000 and you’ve still got only 100, you conclude, “This means you don’t have the same access you did yesterday, just the same way your dollar doesn’t go as far as it did yesterday, either.”

    Ummm, not really. You still have 100 fans and they probably have some value. If you are a business, the value is likely determined by their ability to purchase your product or tell someone about your product. The size of Facebook network is irrelevant to the value of your following. To use simple math again, if I generate $2,000 each year from my 100 fans, then I know each is worth $20 regardless if my market share is 1% or 0.5%.

    Anyway, I hope that helps! I commend and respect you for coming up with a very interesting analysis!!

    All my best,

    1. Julien Avatar

      Monique, Warren, I agree with you guys but I disagree about the value of your network staying the same.

      As a person’s connections increase, the amount of mindshare each of those friends has access to diminishes. So if a person has 100 friends and you are one of them, you have (theoretically) 1% of their “Facebook attention.” If you keep your 100 friends but they get 200, your access diminishes by “half” as other people on their wall crowds your updates out, which diminishes social or financial “profit.”

      Once we take this and apply it to the network in total, the only applicable method is to become twice as “tight” with your existing 100 followers, or to get 100 more.

      My math is clearly not exact but the idea is sound, no?

  18. John McLachlan Avatar

    I think there is business and personal. Friends in business as they relate to social media is what drives us to want to increase our numbers. On its own, not a bad thing to do.

    Friends in your personal life are different. If you are trying desperately to build friend lists / followers in your personal life, you’re like a needy teenager trying to befriend everyone at school. It’s shallow and most importantly, just sad.

    There are a lot of people (me included sometimes) who just want to build friends because we think we’re supposed to and/or it’s our need to be loved and we think this will lead to that. It doesn’t

    This brings us to Happiness and what you talk about in your last paragraph. We just have to find the way that works for us, but being real and honest and intimate still matters.

    Julien, I’ve met you in person a couple of times. In my books, that would qualify as making us “acquaintances” though because of your blog and other back and forth DMs on twitter and email, I feel like you’re my friend. It’s weird. These relationships like ours isn’t like any we’ve had before so maybe we’re all just in for an interesting ride.

    I know one thing, chasing friends just to increase numbers is not for me. I get it for business, but not personally.

    Great post.

  19. Hugh Macken Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit lately.

    I comment on Chris Brogan’s blog periodically but he has not commented on mine. Frankly, I am not in the least bit bothered by that. I’ve seen how many people are bothered by that. Why? Because of totally unrealistic expectations that are in turn based on a false understanding of how professional relationships work.

    I really appreciate it when Chris replies to a tweet I send him but I would not be the least bit offended if he did not reply.

    That’s the problem I have with the personal/professional blurring of lines with social networking. A professional connection of mine online is not necessarily a personal friend. A true friend does not care – at least not principally – about what you can do for them. In business, it’s different. You connect principally for mutual BUSINESS advantage – on some level. No????

    There’s a self-serving component to it, even if you have a pay it forward mindset, and I think there’s no reason to be ashamed to admit and acknowledge that. In fact, I think that to do anything less is disingenuous. No???

    Not to go off on a completely different tangent, but the reason I am uncomfortable with multilevel marketing businesses (MLMs) is precisely because the lines between personal and professional are blurred in a way that can be deeply hurtful and profoundly misleading to both parties.

    An example: Send Out Cards is the coolest product on the planet in my opinion for sending printed greeting cards. Absolutely brilliant. The problem is that if I receive a birthday card from a Send Out Cards “Distributor,” I am left wondering whether the card was sent to me as a genuine no-strings attached expression of good will or an expression of good will with the hope that I will also become a distributor of Send Out Cards, thus allowing them (my “friend”) to cash in on her seemingly innocent expression of good will.

    The only thing more disingenuous and deceptive than “cashing in” on personal relationships is doing everything you can to cover it up along the way.

    It’s imperative that we not blur the lines of personal and professional.

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