The Curious Case of Following and Friending Confusion

Confession: I am a Twitter addict. I write pithy notes about tech, the stock market, aviation, or whatever. Follow me at http://twitter.com/waltal if you dare.

Previous to my Twitter addiction, I was a fairly regular blogger. While blogging can be an addiction, those addicts requiring quick satisfaction and a more intimate relationship with their “audience” jumped to Twitter and like services long ago. Some became video bloggers.

I’m not one of those early adopters. In fact, I have the natural response of most native Missourians. I am the skeptical, “show me” kind of guy. If I’m told that something is the greatest new thing ever, they are going to have to prove it before I take a second look. And it may take years for that second look.

Perhaps “pragmatic” is a better description of my approach to new things. I’ve found that pragmatic cuts through a lot of smoke and mirrors kind of enthusiasm. It gives you a better grounding when people are creating world-changing Web 2.0 thingies without a thought to real use or a business plan. Twitter is one of those. I saw an interview with Evan Williams (founder of Twitter), who says that "Twitter is way too hard". Really? His really vague statements about delivering common sense, “most requested features” is very enlightening. Evan should check out some of the publications about how to use his own service (like the Twitter Survival Guide). Evan, buddy, this stuff ain’t happenin’ unless you are on board and pushing it forward, right?

I try to subscribe to tech-leading people in blogs and on Twitter. That way I don’t fall too far behind the tech savvy crowd. Universally, there seems to be a lot of concern about “Friending” and “Following”, or basically building your network on some Internet service. I especially appreciate Dare Obasanjo’s posts on social networks, among the many people I listen to. And that is a key item for any of these networks. Do you really want to listen to somebody?

Everyone has their own reasons for using a social network. I think that diversity of motivation would be served by a few seconds of real introspection before jumping in the deep end of the pool. First, understand how visible your postings are to the Internet at large, people signed up for the service, your followers or friends, and so on. How much control do you have over those videos, pictures, music and book recommendations, text postings, and other stuff? If you can’t understand the vendor’s explanation, your first mission is to identify someone on the network that understands it and connect with them.

Once you have an idea how deep the pool is, list out the reasons you’d like to go for a swim. And I’ll drop the pool metaphor right here. Are you making business connections? Are you looking for authorities in important areas? Are you looking to hook up? Maybe you just want some entertainment streaming across your monitor while you’re slaving away on some thankless job like – sorry, I drifted off topic there.

Take that list and rank your reasons to join the network. Most of these networks have the potential for thousands of random connections. If you think its frightening to speak to a few hundred random people (some who love you, some want to steal your money, some want to stalk you), then maybe you don’t want thousands of random connections. Maybe you want every connection to be a quality connection, made for the right reasons. Like the reasons on that list you just made. If every connection is valuable to you and the other person, then it doesn’t matter how many you have. If it is a dozen other people, or ten thousand other people, each is a priceless connection you probably wouldn’t have made some other way or on some other network.

Given this approach to social networking, nobody should be confused about following or friending. Any random follower or friend is just that. Most networks let you see their profile, some pictures, what they have written. If they match some of the reasons that you joined the network, great. You might make that connection. Be discriminating. If you can’t see a profile or anything they’ve done and you don’t otherwise know them, decline the invitation or don’t follow them. You’re not missing anything there.

-- Walter Lounsbery, 2008-01-12

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