One of the bloggers I follow on the net, Chris Lovie-Tyler, recently moved from WordPress on his personal blog to a TinyLetter based newsletter on a new domain. Most of what he posts are poems and perhaps these poems are better suited on this new domain. As much as I hate newsletters (and podcasts), I followed him.
But that got me thinking – why do we follow people around?
Well, not physically. That’d be creepy. We follow a lot of people around online. Whenever you join a new social network (Facebook, twitter, Instagram), you follow a bunch of people. Slowly, you realize who posts good content and who doesn’t and you tweak that list based on your interests (in the case of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg personally edits your news feed to make it more boring).
Ok snarky, let’s stick to non-Facebook more-public social networks.
When you’re on Instagram, you see an interesting post, you open the person’s profile, you like some of their photos and then you follow them.
When you’re on twitter, you see an interesting tweet and, though you may or may not go check out the person’s older tweets, you follow them around.
But there’s a very small disconnect between these two activities – liking someone’s current content, and expecting their future content to be the same, or better, or interesting enough. You take on a risk when you follow someone online. They could be no more funny/interesting than you are, and then you’re stuck following someone who doesn’t inspire or interest you. They could be posting pics of their recent vacation, after which they’ll get back to posting pics of their lunches and their not-so-cute dog. They could have made an epic joke tweet, and use that spurt of popularity to start pushing a different agenda which you wholly disagree with (as is usually the case for meme accounts)!
All of that is possible. After all, most people lead ordinary lives. They aren’t constantly discovering new places or going on impromptu adventures. They work, eat, sleep, pretty much at the same places.
So why do we follow these people around? What is our intent in hitting that follow button?
Mind you, I’m excluding Facebook (and WhatsApp and if we were ten years ago, Orkut) because there, you know most of the people you follow. Even if you know them as acquantances, it’s still you following someone who you already know something about.
But why do we follow absolutely random strangers on the Internet? That too, based on one tweet, one post, one photo they’ve posted? We’ve often joked about it, but these social networks have indeed turned us into stalkers of the highest order. We peek into the lives of absolute strangers with no easy way to communicate with them meaningfully (likes and hearts are not communication, they’re a distraction). So it’s comfortable, easy, accepted to see something interesting and just hit follow. We’ll worry about the content later. Not following someone is kind of like not bookmarking an interesting article to read later. We never read it later, but we do get FOMO if we don’t bookmark it.
Coming back to it, I read Chris’ blog post about his move from the personal blog to the new domain. An hour later, I saw an email from him, inviting me to follow his journey on to the newsletter. Now, as I said, I don’t like newsletters. Gmail is not an ideal space for reading. Email is not geared towards enjoying good writing. It’s work. I thank Google for creating the concept of Promotions, Social, Updates and Forums sections. It tells me the things I need to care for and the things I do not need to care for. But as has been pointed out before, Gmail is killing blogs. There are so many ways outside of Gmail where one can follow people, so why do it inside it?
Yet, newsletters remain popular and one of the popular services to send newsletters – TinyLetter – doesn’t have RSS feed support. So I can’t follow Chris’ new adventure through my beloved RSS feed reader. But I want to follow Chris. I discovered Chris’ writing pretty much the same way we discover people on twitter or Instagram – one interesting post.
But then I went ahead and did something which we do not do on other social networks (remember, the open web is also a massive social network) – I went back in time and read every single one of Chris’ posts. Wait, no no, I worded that wrong. I went back to the beginning of Chris’ blog and read every single one of his posts. Lucky for me, it extended only to February 2018.
That’s when I decided that this person was worth following around. There is a massive difference between me and him – I’m not a poet, not a Christian, never been to NZ. But his words are beautiful and always strike a note in my mind. Here’s one of my favorite poems –
My ears ring with the silence
of Sunday morning
Only the birds are up,
gently stirring the neighbourhood
This is the reason why I followed Chris’ blog – I liked all or most of his previous posts. That volume of past work assured me that I will like what this person puts out in the future too. This sort of freedom – to explore a person’s past work in its entirety without being pushed to follow them and move on – can only come from the Internet at large. After all, if I forget or close the tab or move on and want to come back later, my browser remembers every page I’ve looked at forever. This is not true for any of the silos we use – twitter doesn’t remind us which tweets we’ve looked at, Instagram doesn’t tell us the name of that one person who had that one vacation photo in Barcelona which we liked but never double tapped on.
There’s one more thing. I instantly felt this when I saw the email and actually asked Chris about this – his push to ask people to move to his newsletter was not some templated email blast to 500 followers. He had about 50 followers on WordPress.com Reader (which, I’ve come to learn recently, is an excellent RSS reader on its own, so if you never wanted to pay for RSS reading, just create a free account on WordPress.com folks) but knew that most of them are following him the same way people follow others on silo medias. No, that email went to a fraction of those and that fraction did the smart thing and subscribed to the newsletter.
I’ve meandered enough through this post. I just wanted to say that when you’re in a silo network, the push, the intent of following people is two-fold – as a user, you don’t want to miss out on future posts, and as a company, they want to show growth. But when you’re out on the open web – the intent in following someone is better – it’s about your personal connection with the person and their work. If you like it, you’ll follow them to the ends of the Earth. Otherwise, there’s that unsubscribe button. That’s why the open web is better.
I have so many thoughts here, but I’ll try and limit them to the important ones.
There are probably lots of answers to the intent question: subconsciously, to fill our feeds so we can continue to be distracted from our thoughts and real life; to get someone to notice us; because we think someone might be able to teach us something; because we want to be entertained or inspired. I’ve probably followed people for all those reasons at one time or another. Like you, though, I do go back and look at what they’ve posted previously before I follow them, and I don’t usually have too much trouble unsubscribing if that changes and I no longer find value in it.
“But why do we follow absolutely random strangers on the Internet? That too, based on one tweet, one post, one photo they’ve posted? We’ve often joked about it, but these social networks have indeed turned us into stalkers of the highest order. We peek into the lives of absolute strangers with no easy way to communicate with them meaningfully (likes and hearts are not communication, they’re a distraction).”
You’ve hit on the flip side of one of the reasons I’ve moved to TinyLetter, because, at the very least, I can see a person’s email address (and hopefully their name in it) when they subscribe, so they’re not completely anonymous. And I can have a one-on-one conversation with them by email, as opposed to a public conversation in a comment section (which often feels awkward and contrived to me), with other (anonymous) people looking on. I guess I just want things to feel more personal and genuine.
I also like the friction that email subscription provides. People will only subscribe if they really think it’s going to be worth their while, whereas we probably tend to subscribe more indiscriminately when it’s by RSS or in WordPress.com Reader.
“That’s when I decided that this person was worth following around. There is a massive difference between me and him – I’m not a poet, not a Christian, never been to NZ. But his words are beautiful and always strike a note in my mind.”
Thanks so much for following, despite our differences–and for sharing my poem! Funnily enough, that’s the very first one I shared when I started sharing poetry on TinyLetter the first time (a couple of years ago). 🙂
“No, that email went to a fraction of those and that fraction did the smart thing and subscribed to the newsletter.”
Full disclosure: I’ve since invited a bunch more of my existing WordPress.com subscribers to subscribe. But only people I thought might genuinely be interested (I checked out their sites first), not the ones that looked like they’d indiscriminately followed.
Sorry for such a long response, but it was a thought-provoking post.
Chris, thanks for the reply. I’m glad I got much of what you were thinking right when I was writing this post. It matters to want to know the people who follow/read one’s thoughts. It matters to want to have conversations with them and create a relationship. 🙂
Yeah, that’s the guts of it for me. Thanks, Nitin.