When Leaders Become Followers

Yesterday morning I listened to a lengthy conversation about social media, one that left me really frustrated.1 The conversants were discussing two particular platforms — one, which we’ll call Platform X, is large & longstanding, yet increasingly beleaguered & abusive; the other, Platform Z, is new-ish, much smaller, & somewhat unproven. I came away feeling the conversation had been extremely one-sided, overly lenient (perhaps out of familiarity bias) of Platform X’s noxiousness and hard on Platform Z’s perceived shortcomings.

The comments made in favor of Platform X, or against Platform Z, struck me as curious. I thought — how would these sound if Platform X was a physical, rather than an online, space? What follows is an exploration of those comments.

Podcasters like coffee, right? Let’s take paraphrasing of comments made about Platform X & Platform Z, then pretend we’re talking about two coffee shops — Coffeeshop X & Coffeeshop Z — that have similar characteristics.2

I’ve worked hard to attract a large audience on Platform X, which has become toxic. I don’t want to leave it because I will have to start all over with my audience.

If your ability to engage your audience is limited by your participation on that platform, is it really your audience?

Let’s say Coffeeshop X has been your longstanding hangout. You’re a regular there, and you know many of the other regulars; some of them are good friends of yours outside the coffee shop. You routinely suggest it to friends & business associates as a rendezvous spot. Your previous open-mic nights have been well-attended, and people who run into you elsewhere mention how much they’ve enjoyed your performance. Lately, though, Coffeeshop X has become an uncomfortable place to be. Friendly people still show up to see you, but so do others who heckle all of you, grabbing the mic & hurling abuses, sometimes directed at specific people, sometimes people you care about. Despite the disturbance & hurt caused, the management of Coffeeshop X shrugs its shoulders. They’re not going to ask the mean people to leave as long as they keep buying coffee.

You have a choice: do you keep showing up at Coffeeshop X, hoping the mean people go someplace else, like some Mean People Coffeeshop?3 Do you keep asking people to meet you there to catch up, talk shop, or make a deal? Do you post a note near your usual chair, saying you’ve decamped to Coffeeshop Z — which isn’t so well-established, but is run by good-hearted people you already know — and invite your friends & associates to find you there?

The choices made by Platform X’s terrible management don’t affect what I get out of the service.

What about your audience? Do those choices affect them? What is their mental state while on the platform? What does that portion of your audience dealing with those effects think of your continued support of Platform X?

Let’s say Coffeeshop X has decided to allow its patrons to bring in their own boomboxes. A group of people have decided to abuse this policy and routinely bring their boomboxes in and play a ten-hour loop of TV static at high volume, with the speakers pointed at the plate glass windows to maximize the reverb. The management doesn’t take any action to stop this — they say everyone can form their own opinion of the white noise. Besides, these white noise boombox people are buying coffee.

Basically, if you want to keep patronizing Coffeeshop X, you can sit there with your noice-cancelling headphones on, perhaps in one of the alcoves where it’s a little quieter. Is this the kind of environment you want for a coffee date with a friend? Would you invite someone to Coffeeshop X to meet you for the first time? Or to discuss something important?

I conduct business on Platform X; leaving Platform X will hurt my business.

Platform X is counting on you to feel like you have no recourse but continue to use it. That might be true in the short term, but what long term harm is Platform X causing to your business?

Coffeeshop X has been an important venue for your work. You advertise your creativity, technical skills, & products there. You have meetings there. Your partners & patrons frequent it, too. For a good while, Coffeeshop X was a good place for all this business activity. Many of your partners & patrons still seem to be showing up to Coffeeshop X, but you notice they’re looking less enthusiastic & more harried with all the white noise boomboxes blasting. Your conversations are becoming more guarded, and you are less interested in openly engaging new folks who wander into the coffee shop. Other old partners & longtime patrons don’t come in anymore, so they don’t know about That Cool Thing You’re Doing Now.

Platform Z is interesting, but nobody is there.

Measuring the strength of a platform by its gross tonnage of accounts & number of reactions per post or updates per minute is certainly one way of guessing at its potential reach. Measuring the strength of a platform by the quality of engagement is more difficult — it takes time, resists easily-mined raw metrics, could be more subjective, & requires asking fundamentally different questions — but strikes me as a better way of determining whether the people who use it are thoughtful, respectful, & supportive.

Coffeeshop Z opened just a little while ago. You poked your head in the door and noted the coffee brewing smelled pretty good. But you didn’t recognize any of the faces in there. It looked like there were some open seats at the bar, some open tables, quality provided reading material, and a pretty casual vibe. Somebody you didn’t know actually waved at you, but since you were alone, you turned around and left.

None of my friends are on Platform Z. Who would I talk to?

How do your friends feel about Platform X? Would you all, as a gesture of your mutual friendship, consider trying a new thing together? If Platform Z doesn’t work out after an agreed-upon interval, could you either go back to Platform X or reassess your options?

Your friends tell you that they’re tired of the white noise boombox people at Coffeeshop X, and they’re fed up with the management of Coffeeshop X enabling — or is it encouraging? — that behavior. You’re all still going there, but you can see that everyone’s feeling the strain.

You poke your head in at Coffeeshop Z again. People at the counter are chatting with one another. The actual owner is there behind the counter, serving drinks alongside the manager. At the tables, people are reading newspapers, magazines, & books, some of which you enjoy, and some of which you’ve never seen before. A couple groups of people have pushed together some tables and are talking about TV shows, movies, & music. A couple people with shoulder bags & backpacks are at a standing bar, chatting about professional stuff while taking a break from work.

You don’t know any of these people. A few of them smile at you when they see you looking at them. You remember your friends, hunkered down back at Coffeeshop X, trying to hold a conversation while wearing their noise-cancelling headphones. You miss them.

On Platform X, I can block anyone for any reason. Platform Z doesn’t have a blocking feature — that’s madness.

Does lacking a block feature reflect negatively on Platform Z, or does it say more about the environment of Platform X, where it’s become a necessity?

At Coffeeshop X, you can prevent anyone from sitting at your table. You can even put up some smoked glass that prevents them from seeing you at your table while they’re in the coffee shop.4

When you poked your head in at Coffeeshop Z, you noticed they didn’t have this feature. Instead, you noticed, right inside the door, a sign stating Coffeeshop Z requires respectful treatment of everyone. The sign stipulates that those who cannot be respectful will be ushered out of the coffee shop & will not be permitted to return. You notice only two people are working there — the owner & the manager. What happens when the place gets busy? What happens if it gets busy and the white noise boombox people show up?

Someone in Coffeeshop Z was already rude to me.

You did not deserve that. They should not have been rude to you. You probably weren’t the only one to notice. Hopefully others — including strangers — stepped in to support you.

Should the rudeness continue, the owner and the manager of Coffeeshop Z have already said they will take care of that kind of behavior. Do they deserve the opportunity to stand by that principle?

The Notables: Following the Leader

In his recent essay on the state of social media, Smokey Ardisson coined a term — the notables” — to describe prominent users of social media.5 I like this term, because it encompasses a group of prominent users, while creating space for a distinction between types of notoriety.6 A good many of these folks are notable because their professional perspectives are widely (and deservedly) valued.

The problem is, some notables seem to sense their notoriety is predicated upon their status within a particular social media platform’s caste system. While they maintain other outlets for their work, they depend on their position in the social media caste system to attract interest in their work. I don’t believe for a moment that Notable N couldn’t attract a sizable, engaged audience if they were to leave Platform X for Platform Z. Of course, Notable N might object: An engaged audience is all well & good, but how do I quantify my notability to my partners7 if Platform Z doesn’t present engagement metrics to me?”

Inevitably, the notables become so invested in being notable on a single social media platform (attracting & maintaining an audience of followers”) that the thing they’re actually notable for — their legitimate creativity, piercing insight, impeccable memory, or astute analysis — appears worth (far?) less to them without that notoriety. In an effort to preserve gravitas, they’ve hitched their star to a black hole, and now they’re along for the ride.

The notables aren’t leading anymore; they’re followers, too.

  1. I don’t intend to reveal the source of the conversation, or who the participants were. It doesn’t matter, really. I certainly won’t be the only one to hear it, but I don’t think calling out the participants contributes to the conversation. Nor do I flatter myself to think the participants care what I think. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t. That’s fine.↩︎

  2. In fact, Amit Gawande used this analogy in his post Why not just quit Twitter?”, which was published the week before this post.↩︎

  3. Of course mean people like having their own spaces — but what they love is ruining other people’s spaces.↩︎

  4. If they walk by on the street, though, they can see you through the plate glass windows.↩︎

  5. Ardisson’s Can We Ever Reset the Field? expands on his analysis of the problems created by centralized, corporate social media — and some food for thought as we find our way out of those silos.↩︎

  6. See Alan Jacobs’ explication of types of notoriety.↩︎

  7. Sponsors, advertising partners, what have you. Whoever is paying Notable N’s freight and expecting something in return.↩︎

ethics social media

Previous post
The Sympathizer: A Review Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer directly refutes a dominant perspective: many of its readers likely think of the Vietnam War as something that
Next post
“Society starts at dawn.” I’m not sure what the Styles Desk is, but The New York Times recently published one of the Styles Desk writers’ reflections on the experience of