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December 28, 2008

Arrington? Le Meur? Scoble? Everybody's Right About "Authority".

By Jesse Stay of Stay N' Alive (Twitter/FriendFeed)

This weekend's blog flareup on whether Twitter should track the "authority" of a user, based primarily on the number of followers, has a number of people up in arms. One side says it makes sense. After all, Technorati and Google have always tracked influence. Others say the following number can be easily manipulated, and has no weight. First of all, before we address the issues, why am I writing this on LouisGray.com and not my own blog, StayNAlive.com?  It largely comes down to numbers.  LouisGray.com has near 4,000 RSS subscribers, while my blog only has 500.  Aside from the fact that I enjoy the team of great writers I work with on this blog, I have a much louder, and because of that, more authoritative, voice here.  More people listen with a larger audience than those with a small audience.  And like it or not, all bloggers trying to compete play the numbers game - that's simple marketing.

Background

Recently Loic Le Meur wrote a post, suggesting that Twitter Search sort their results by most popular on Twitter.  So, for example, if Robert Scoble has more followers than Michael Arrington, Scoble's posts will appear higher than Arrington's in the search results.  Scoble responded with a blog post suggesting Lemeur was wrong, saying that the number of people you follow is more important than those who follow you.  Today, Arrington reignited the flames with another follow-on post, supporting Le Meur, effectively saying the controversy was much ado about little, that it wasn't a separation from the haves and have nots, but instead, a simple recommendation to add to Twitter search.

So we have two business men, trying to find more readers and users to build revenue for their businesses (Arrington runs a content business, TechCrunch.com, while Le Meur runs a Video publishing service, Seesmic).  At the same time we have a video blogger, Robert Scoble, trying to find new content, which in turn generates revenue for the business he works for by building unique content.  He's very good at that, but They're both right.

Of course Arrington and Le Meur want more followers, and preference placed on followers - they benefit by doing so.  Their experience, as businessmen trying to generate revenue for their business, shows that more followers can both directly and indirectly translate into revenue for the businesses they own and run.  Arrington, after today's article, will generate even more readers of his blog because of the discussion going on about this on Twitter and FriendFeed.  That converts to more followers, which in turn sends them back to TechCrunch.com.

If I launch a new feature for SocialToo.com (Disclosure - I am CEO and co-founder of SocialToo.com, a service that, among many other features, enables you to auto-follow those that follow you on Twitter and other networks.), I have 4,000 followers I can now announce that to.  A year ago, when I was only at a few hundred, that announcement would not have made anywhere near an impact.  Now, with a sound business model, I have the potential to convert many more users to drive both traffic and revenue to the service.  The same goes with Arrington and TechCrunch, and Le Meur and Seesmic.  They're smart businessmen.  Notice Guy Kawasaki, another smart businessman said the same thing.

At the same time, it makes complete sense that Scoble places his value on the people he follows. Scoble's value is in the information he learns.  It's a sound strategy for a journalist, a PR professional, or a blogger.  After all, I met Scoble through following him on Twitter and FriendFeed (in person even!).  I also met Guy Kawasaki by following him on Twitter, as did I Chris Pirillo, and following the Tweets of the two of them was the premise behind me starting SocialToo.com.  There is value in that as well.  Scoble, and others can be experts, because of the people they follow - that is powerful.  It should also be noted that Scoble has a lot of followers because of this strategy.  This really is a "Chicken or the Egg" argument!

Social Networking is About the Experience for the Individual

The power of Social Networking is that it allows each individual to develop their own personalized experience on the web.  By the people they follow, they get the content they want.  By the people that follow them, they are given a voice outside of that personal world.  Scoble is right - you are defined by the people you follow.  I've talked about that here before - relationships define the individual.

However, a relationship is a two-way connection.  In the end it's those that follow you that can vouch for who you are, and what type of person they perceive you as.  If anyone were to steal my identity, I now have 4,000 people that can vouch it's the real me.  Of course there are ways around this, but it's still a form of identity, and will solidify even more as technology evolves.

I am a smarter person because of the people I follow - I've mentioned before that I separate those I pay attention to from those I follow.  That's how I follow smart people.  At the same time, I can ask any question now, and get multiple answers to that question from my 4,000+ followers.  I couldn't do that when I had only a few hundred.  I'm also smarter because of the people the follow me!  The people that follow me are very valuable, and make me a more authoritative source, just as the people I follow do.

I really don't think there is any right or wrong answer here.  I think Scoble, Arrington, and Lemeur are all right - it's important to follow smart people, yet at the same time your followers are just as important.  I don't think either one is any more valuable than the other on a general level - it varies on a person-to-person experience, and that is why you see them arguing over it.  That's the amazing thing behind Social Networking - there is no right or wrong answer because each individual can define their own!

In a perfect world, Twitter Search would provide multiple filters, some based on followers, some based on people you follow, some based on the number of people you converse with directly in your network of friends and followers.  The more personalized that search becomes, the more valuable it becomes to the individual.  "Authority" is determined by the individual.  Don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Read more by Jesse Stay at Stay N' Alive.