Let's face it. One of the main reasons you and I, and almost anyone, are on social services is that you want to interact with new people and expand your current network of connections. There's no doubt about it that there's power in this concept - as you grow your network with quality people, you will meet others that could potentially help grow your brand, share your product, or build your audience. A large audience is valuable.
In the early days of Social Networking (hmm...that would be what, 1 year ago?), growing your network and having the majority of those following you also listening to you was very easy to achieve. It was simple - if you followed someone, you were making a commitment to also listen to their updates. I'm seeing a trend amongst my followers, however, which I think is changing the effectiveness of this technique. Where just one year ago, I was usually one of among 20 or 30 people my followers were following, quite a large part of my followers today are following 200 people or more.
I'm noticing on the larger networks like Twitter that the conversation is starting to fizzle. I may post something, but I don't always get the responses I used to. My followers are simply following more people now and I'm one of hundreds they have to pay attention to. I don't take offense to this - on Twitter I too follow over 1,200 people. I have my own strategy for listening to the most important posts using track and RSS and other techniques, but I'll be first to admit I don't catch every single update like I used to. Twitter has now become an aggregation and information tool for me for learning about people and events - it has lost much of its "conversation" nature that it used to have. This is the case for many other people, and not just the big bloggers and early-adopters any more.
The Follower/Listening Ratio
This begs the question, at what time does a social service lose its effectiveness in building relationships through communication, and at what time does it become purely a "data gathering and sharing" tool? Ideally, if all your social services, networks, and tools had the perfect ratio enabling all who follow you actually listen to you, your potential for a successful network of followers/following would be much more effective. This is the problem when social services like Twitter get too big - they foster the lack of good relationships the bigger they get, especially if they don't build the tools to foster this. Limiting the number of people you can follow doesn't necessary solve the issue though, as there is still power in also being able to aggregate and track information about lots of people.
I'm currently posting most of my updates via Identi.ca. They will have this problem as well if they grow too big, but one solution for me is to ensure I'm always on the new, upcoming networks so that the number of those people listening to me are following remains small, and more people are paying attention to my updates that way. Not everyone can do this though, and I'll admit this isn't the ideal situation and will not last for long.
Sites That Do it Right
There are a few sites that seem to be doing this right (to an extent), and frankly, I'm seeing much better communication and relationships fostered via those services vs. the other services like Twitter that seem to be getting bigger without the proper tools to foster such relationships. Two of those stand out with some great features to foster this ratio and keep it strong that I'd like to share.
Facebook, the big monolith that hit 100,000,000 users today, seems to have grown well with tools to enable users to foster their relationships. Facebook is supposed to be about people, after all. First of all, Facebook allows categorization of friends into "lists" which you can arrange privacy settings around and allows for easy sending of mail to groups of people. Setting privacy settings allows each user to ensure only certain groups can see certain pieces of information about them. This helps reduce the unneeded information your followers see, and ensures they only see the most important information that they would be interested in about you.
In addition to that, with the new Facebook design, you can now filter out what you want to see about people. So, if I no longer want to see information about Joe I can hide that in my news feed and his updates will never appear again. I'm still friends with Joe, I can still contact him and interact with him, but this way I'm truly paying attention to those I'm truly interested in. In addition to that I can do things such as filter so I only see photos, or only updates from a certain application. My capability to listen is better on Facebook, and the ratio I mention is much better. The discussions are better and happen more often on Facebook because of this.
FriendFeed has some similar filtering functions to Facebook. Let's start with the current features, and the ability the FriendFeed gives you to "hide" updates by a particular individual. If you don't want to see updates by someone, just "hide" their updates and only the updates from those you're interested in will show.
Yesterday, FriendFeed also announced some brand new features that make building and fostering relationships and discussion much better. For instance, I can add particular individuals to a "favorites" list. This means I can now follow all the updates of my favorite "followees" and just skim the rest. This ensures that more people are listening to what they want, and not ignoring the things they might not want to ignore.
With these tools, Facebook and FriendFeed become much more effective tools for growing and fostering your network. It's important that as you grow your network that you ensure that not only are you building the network, but that those following you are actually listening to you. Choosing the right network and strategy to do this is important. Having 1,000 followers on Twitter may not be the best thing for you if not all of them have a way to pay attention to your updates. Pick the networks (and the two I mention aren't the only ones - they are just the two I use) that work best for you at fostering conversation and relationships, and it may just be okay to ignore the others, or at least focus a little less on them as you build your relationships through the more effective methods.
What are some better ways you would recommend to strengthen the followers/listeners ratio of your network?