The Lie Every Social Network Tells

Let’s talk a little more about the problem of disentangling yourself from the possibly-democracy-destroying social networks that currently dominate public discourse.

Now that we’ve moved full-blast into a gig economy, one of the most frightening prospects of leaving social media is losing the network that keeps you afloat. Artists rely on their social graphs to spread the word when they have new work out, or when they need a new project. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, to be sure, but a total lack of exposure means you’re definitely not selling any books (or games, or commissions, or...) Obcurity is the biggest problem early and even mid-career creators have to solve, because it doesn’t matter what heartbreaking works of genius you produce if nobody ever looks at them.

So sure, I could delete my Twitter account in a principled stand for what I believe in. But I’d be losing access to (as of this writing) 6,757 hypothetically human followers who have opted in to what I have to say. Gosh, that’s a lot of potential book sales to give up, isn’t it?

And yet.

Here’s the lie every social network is telling you: It’s your friend or follower counts. Your number of impressions and views. Your numbers of likes, faves, RTs, hearts.

We live in a world that wants to quantify everything, a kind of numeromancy meant to give us the feeling that we know and can control the future. Your resting heart rate and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream become the entrails we read to know if we will die soon. Calories consumed and burned become a scale of virtue, weighing our moral worth. Likes are a way to scry the hearts of others, to know how much they love you.

Did I say yet that this is a lie? Because it’s a lie.

This is a problem advertisers have grappled with for decades. There is no way to measure the hearts of humankind, so we measure what we can and pretend it’s the same thing. We have a whole arcane set of practices arisen solely from trying to derive truths about what we can’t measure from the things we can: conversion rates, A/B testing, sentiment analysis.

These numbers we can see and know feel like money in the bank. But the dirty truth is that I can’t count on all 6,757 of those people to buy a book. To the contrary, I can count on the fact that they won’t — and if I sell that many of anything, most of those people won’t know a hoot about where to find me online.

On Twitter, I can’t even count on all of my followers to even see my promotional efforts, no matter how hard I dance. Honestly, I can’t count on all of them to even be human beings, or to still be active on Twitter anymore if they are. So the loss of value to me in leaving is far less than 6,757 book sales, multiplied by however many books over however many years Twitter is the place to be.

How much less? Who can say?

This is an even more complicated problem when it’s not a career issue, but a personal one. It is nonetheless the same problem. You can have five hundred friends on Facebook but nobody to call to feed your pets because you have to make an emergency trip out of town. You can have five thousand Twitter followers and nobody who checks up on you at the right moment because they know you’ve been having a tough time these days, and they just want to see if you’re okay.

It’s possible that the 51 people who have subscribed to get my blog posts in email (and perhaps also the couple-hundred who read me in RSS)  are all the people on Twitter I could count on in the first place, as audience members, or as colleagues, or as friends.

We have a lot of ways to say this same thing. The map is not the territory. Quantity isn’t quality. And you know the alleged Mark Twain quote, that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.   

Numbers can be real, and yet not true. Let’s not fool ourselves. And let’s not allow ourselves to be fooled. 


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