An Attention Ponzi Scheme?

There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere lately about whether the number of followers a person has on Twitter is indicative of that person’s authority. I give Loic Le Meur credit for starting this discussion. The most popular alternative seems to be to measure how many times someone’s messages are retweeted.

I find the debate over Twitter authority morbidly fascinating, like a car accident from which I can’t look away. But I’m more interested in a different question: what does it mean to follow someone on Twitter?

A few months ago, I wrote:

Connections in Twitter reflect real value. They correspond to investments of attention. Someone with many followers is much like an author with many readers. While I’m sure this metric can be gamed (e.g., by creating bogus Twitter accounts and having them follow you), at least Twitter has the model right in principle.

How naive of me! Consider the following:

Clearly following someone does not correspond to an investment of attention for these people. And, while they may be extreme cases, I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual for someone to follow over 500 people. I have a hard time believing that anyone pays that much attention to that many people?

Why would anyone follow that many people? The obvious reason is the expectation of reciprocity: following someone often leads to their following back. And many people want to have more followers, possibly as a status symbol, but perhaps out of a sincere desire to exert greater influence. But if following someone doesn’t actually correspond to an investment of attention, then these efforts are a complete waste of time, the attention economy equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.

There’s nothing unique about Twitter here; the same phenomenon seems to take place in every social networking platform. But the minimal nature of Twitter exposes this silliness in its purest form.

To be clear, there are people who are really using Twitter to interact with other people. I consider myself one of them. I put a hard cap at 200 people as the number I can plausibly hope to follow, and I unfollow people if I find I’m not interacting with them, e.g., because my interest in them is strictly professional but they use Twitter primarily for personal / social expression.

I’m not so presumptous as to tell people how they should use Twitter and other social networks. Live and let live. But I don’t see why the Ponzi scheme of chasing for followers / connections hasn’t burst. It would be nice to see a social network use a concept of scarcity to ensure that connections are valuable. End attention inflation now!

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

18 replies on “An Attention Ponzi Scheme?”

Thanks, that was like a missing jigsaw piece falling into place on my feelings about twitter. Interesting that friendfeed has the same basic issue, but has used groupings and hiding to cope.


It is ironic that the social norm of reciprocity is ultimately undermining the social aspect of social networks. Following people to be polite and then hiding them to avoid paying attention to them–that’s silly enough, but it’s even sillier when the whole reason people are following each other in the first place is to rack up followers.


Twitter is an interesting dynamic. Without question, it has been the first SM-type application that has connected me to other bloggers, in a relevant, relationship-building, way. I look at my Twitter network like spherical rings. The first ring is half a dozen other bloggers that I have the closest relationship with, the next ring is 20 to 30 people that I interact with, and the 3rd layer is everyone else. I’ve only been on Twitter since October, so the challenge now is to move people closer – not to add additional followers.


I fully support your 200 Twitter cap movement. I’ve always thought that the people who rave about using Twitter as a way to “build and market their personal brand” or to “build an audience” had already achieved a critical mass of fame and were just looking for more ways to snowball bigger.


One other possible way to look at it: I don’t read all the posts of all the people I follow on the microblogging service I use (not Twitter — a smaller one). Instead, I enjoy dipping my toes in from time to time, trusting that there will be something interesting on my main personal page. So, I don’t worry about how many people I follow. I just follow people who put up things I find interesting. In other words, I do pay attention to the people I follow, but not at every moment. Granted, I only follow about 60 people myself, but I think I’d treat it the same way no matter what the number was. And 60 would be very overwhelming already, were I trying to be sure to interact with all of them. I think of microblogging as a slower, more laid back sort of chat room. I show up, see who’s hanging out, and interact if I have something to say. Anyone I follow is someone I’m glad to see at the hangout, but not necessarily someone I want to know about at every moment. I imagine this would be one way to handle following a huge amount of people — point being, I don’t think that following lots of people is necessarily dishonest or self-serving.


A fair point, though I think we’re really just quibbling over thresholds. If you were following thousands of people, I would suspect that you hadn’t even had the opportunity to determine that you found them interesting. Learning enough about someone to decide that you find them interesting is itself an investment of attention. Perhaps the expected ongoing investment per interesting person is low, but I also suspect it’s not zero.



Thanks for the very thought-provoking post.

I’m like Erica: dipping my toes in the stream, knowing that the people I’ve chosen to follow should be sending something interesting, informative, funny, or insightful my way whenever I have time to look. I didn’t follow any of them expecting to be followed back.

I’d never follow thousands. I assume that’s a side effect of the auto-follow function.

I choose those I follow and I send them an @ message to tell them why. When someone follows me, I look at the profile and decide whether to follow back. I’m not on Twitter to market myself or my services so the volume isn’t big enough to force a less personal approach.

I don’t limit the number of people I connect with professionally in real life or on LinkedIn, nor do I talk with each one of them every day. My work (communications, PR, community relations) brings me in contact with a really big circle and I would never artificially limit that.

If these connections all get on Twitter, I’ll probably follow them. But if they want to make sure we’re communicating and they have my attention, they’d better pick up the phone, DM or @ me, or email me.



Barb, thank you for reminding me that rational people still value reality over pseudo-status. As I hope I’m getting across, I’m a huge fan of Twitter–an idealist, as Curt Monash so aptly put it. In fact, I hope my recent post about measuring influence on Twitter helps emphasize reality, rather than simply increasing the noise that often passes for marketing on Twitter.


[reposted form a comment on the Greater IBM blog] Yeah, sometimes it does seem like social media creates and echo chamber that distorts reality. And in that way it’s no different, really, than traditional media. The shame of it is that I think we were all hoping social media would provide a really effective filter and help us find what’s important immediately by automagically separating the wheat from the chaff. And to some extent, it’s effective — for example, bringing together Jasmin and Debbe and others in the Greater IBM. Yet the onus is still ultimately on the individual to do some of the filtering and it’s sometimes hard to gauge what’s important from what’s just loud.


Ethan, great to see you over here at The Noisy Channel!

I think the problem is that while social media offers rich possibilities of filtering in theory, it has under-delivered in practice. But the problem is as much cultural as technical. For all of the rhetoric about “joining the conversation”, much of the social media activity has been competitive monologue. Or worse, a rat race to score more status points.

What we need to get out of this mess is for people to optimize for meaningful objectives. As long as people are are caught up in trying to accumulate virtual notches in their virtual belts, social media won’t be–and don’t deserve to be–taken seriously.


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