vanity incentive

Ousting Robert Scoble and the Death of the Twitterati

It’s been a tough few hours for Robert Scoble, the internet’s preeminent friend collector.

Not only have his answers on the emerging Q&A site, Quora, been voted down religiously, but the stars of the tech echochamber are now ganging up on him and labeling him the poster child for everything that is wrong with social Web services.

Before getting too deep into it, it’s important to understand why people hate Robert Scoble.  The answer may be simple jealousy.

Scoble has a tendency to jump on social services early and try to collect as many friends, followers or contacts that he possibly can, often rendering the core social functionality of those services useless and turning them into a broadcasting platform for himself.  On Twitter, his initial policy of auto-following anyone who would follow him resulted in a follower count in excess of 160,000 users (since actually listening to this many people is impossible, he’s since scaled back who he follows to a mere 30,000).

This pisses off a lot of people but the people that are the most pissed off are the ones that are doing the exact same thing.  The attention starved.  The people that worry more about their personal brand than the brand they work for or their clients. Essentially, the Twitterati.

Friend counts and other false metrics are largely responsible for the rise of the Twitterati.  In the early days of blogging, just getting comments was a badge of honor but that quickly gave way to Technorati rankings, the Power 150 and making your Twitter and Facebook follower counts as high as humanly possible.  Suddenly people who were basically unemployable could tout a false status metric, which would soon give birth to the “social media expert/ninja/guru” phenomenon.  Of course, this so-called status can now be bought on eLance by outsourcing a couple hundred dollars of work to someone in Mumbai who can build those numbers for you in a matter of weeks, regardless of whether or not you contribute anything.

Enter Quora.

Quora is often touted as a better version of Wikipedia since the user base is made up of accountable “experts.”  Unlike Wikipedia, which buries the editors a layer deep and requires a bit of actual expertise to find out what editors actually have status in the community, Quora is built on the same vanity that fuels the Twitterati to participate in other services.  You have a follower count, like Twitter, and your answers can be voted up and down, which is a great motivation to leverage your other social channels for increased status.  Eventually, Quora should build it’s search ranking and create high ranking search entries for the people that provide the best answers.

As Scoble willingly admitted and half-heartedly apologized for, he was guilty of bad judgement on Quora.  He flooded the service with answers, was guilty of over-the-top self-promotion to get votes and even was using photos and videos to get his answers greater visibility, taking an almost SEO-like approach to optimizing Quora content.  He even said that he mistakenly saw it a blogging platform as much as Q&A service.  First a Quora blog stated that the platform isn’t his “playground” and then Michael Arrington tried to refute the vanity incentive a little in his criticism of Scoble.  This is largely what is leading people to go to Scoble’s answers page and vote down each one of his contributions.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

If you are able to eliminate the Twitterati element from emerging social channels you can eliminate a lot of the noise as well and provide an overall better user experience.  Just think how much superfluous content is created for reasons of vanity or increasing false status metric.  If you look at social services that don’t reward that sort of behavior, like Aardvark and Path, you find that removing the vanity incentive results in a much leaner service.  And if you think this kind of incentive is crucial to the long term sustainability of a social service, look no further than Wikipedia to be proven wrong.

Most social platforms are so new that the ethics of how to use them are still being sorted out.  Even if the heaviest users are the biggest offenders, their behavior is reinforced by the legions that are using the services in the exact same way.  Quora is a great example of a service that is leveraging vanity to launch quickly and, looking at the early adopters, it’s working very well.  Whether or not the shortcomings that have led to the Scoble backlash will lead to an increase in more intimate social services remains to be seen.

It will most likely take a lot more time but, for those people that are annoyed by friend requests from strangers with 50,000 followers or what their social feeds clean of Foursquare location updates, the end may be coming sooner than you think.  The trick to killing the Twitterati beast is cutting off it’s head.

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