Article by Eli Fennell
Last year I wrote an article for Wojdylo Finance, Living with the New Google+ Suggested User List, on a request from Jesse Wojdylo to report my experience having gained thousands of followers from being on it. The “new” Suggested User List (SUL) wasn’t really a new list, merely a modification of the “old” list: the old SUL was entirely handpicked and the same for all users, while the new SUL combined the handpicked list with algorithmically personalized suggested users.
To the best of my knowledge, this aSUL (Algorithmic SUL) is still part of the SUL, though it appears to rotate different groups of users in and out. I have been it on twice, in fact.
At the time, I stated,
“So what do I think about the new SUL? I like it. It helps break down the “hand-picked celebrity” culture of the original SUL. It’s a definite boost to discovery for those who benefit, and I expect many more to benefit as it rolls out more widely and as they tweak the algorithm.”
That was nearly 8 months ago. So have my feelings about it changed? I’m afraid to report they have, and not for the better.
The Problem with the SUL and What’s Hot on Google+
Last year, my feeling was that being on the aSUL brought me exposure to tens of thousands of new people, and while most of those people never engaged with me, and not all who did were high quality, I believed the minority I was able to form connections with made it worth it.
Mind you, at the time I wrote that, I had 16K followers. I now have 63k followers. I’m now way past the Dunbar’s Number (a theoretical upper limit to the number of social relationships a human can organically maintain). I have tried to manage this massive growth without losing the authentic social interactions I crave. In that regard I have failed, or at least failed to maintain the level I wanted to be at, a realization which has dawned on me after some denial.
So why do I think I failed? Because my real goals with social media, the goals I came onto Google+ with, were ultimately incompatible with the type of goals encouraged by a Suggested User List. I wanted to form connections with great people doing great things, and I did, and in retrospect I should never have wavered from that goal. I tried not to, but ultimately being on a Suggested User List is not about forming those connections, if they happen it is a mere side effect; rather, it is about growing an audience.
I thought I wanted that audience, and even confused it at times with relationship building. A thousand people sharing your viral meme and leaving comments like, “Hahaha too funny!” may give one an endorphin rush, but I realize now that those are not relationships or even connections. Few of those people will continue to follow the body of my work, they just want to be entertained for a moment, and they consider that my purpose.
An entertainer does not so much shape the audience, as be shaped by their expectations: if the people want funny memes, then that is all they want. They do not then want to read your blog post on why Twitter is the social network to beat, even though you may believe the latter to be infinitely superior content to the former. The audience is not your circle of colleagues, and the way you work an audience is to rile them up. Once I discovered I could do that, often with the simplest content I ever created (a shared news article accompanied by a single snarky comment, for example), it started to come too easily, and I wasn’t even aware of doing it.
What is worse, though, is when a post hits What’s Hot on Google+. There was a time when that “achievement” gave me a rush of excitement, but in recent months I have found myself dreading it nearly every time I discover that it happens, like a rude surprise. An initial group of people I really want to hear from dominates the early comments, but as soon as “The Hotness” (as I’ve come to think of it) kicks in, they are thoroughly drowned out by people whose comments, while generally overwhelmingly positive, add nothing meaningful to the discussion. Some people you meet on social media raise the quality of every conversation to a higher level, while others are at best cheerleaders and, at worst, hindrances.
I understand, now, what I didn’t understand when these two things were first created, something I would have debated with others had they suggested it back then: they are largely illusory. The Suggested User List makes you believe you’ve got a gigantic audience, when in reality virtually none of these people who add you really chose you. Google chose you, or a popularity vote among other people on the list chose you, but the audience didn’t really choose you.
What’s Hot then completes the vicious cycle, by manufacturing virality. Very few posts on Google+ would actually go viral organically, because there is too little sharing (not because there aren’t enough users, but because its design doesn’t encourage rapidfire sharing like Twitter, and too much sharing is done privately in Circles).
Consequently, to achieve greater levels of virality, Google uses a combination of manual curation and algorithms to infuse certain posts with “virality juice”. The post is exposed, not organically but by Google itself, to users who would not otherwise see it. Throw in “+1 Recommendations” and it gets even messier. The fact I had participated in a lot of Circle shares in the early days (when there was no other way to find anyone) didn’t help, either.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying Google was wrong to do this. A Suggested User List and a What’s Hot list of posts and even Recommended Posts make perfect business sense. They help people who sign up without any of their “friends” to have a Stream full of activity from the word go; they reward audience seekers for making great content (and yes, sometimes not-so-great content as well); and they help to attract marketers and celebrities.
This is not a First World Problems rant, i.e. “Oh woe is me, Google gave me tens of thousands of followers, how ever shall I cope?” I do believe the Googlers intended to reward people like me for being passionate users of the product, and maybe they were also trying to make the experience even “stickier” for us, for which I am grateful to them. The aSUL in particular was a thoughtful way to reward those who maybe didn’t make it into the “cool club” of the main SUL.
The failing was mine. I simply didn’t prepare for “Life After the SUL”, and I allowed it to infect me with a sense of importance that I didn’t really deserve, or at least hadn’t really earned. Maybe not everyone who follows Britney Spears actually chose her, but I’d wager a guess that fewer people chose her blindly having no idea who she was just because an algorithm told them to.
My initial goal started to take a back seat as the lure of the audience grabbed hold of me. Every time my posts went viral, I allowed myself to believe that all those thousands of people really did choose me, when in reality it was just a small group of people whose positive responses triggered “The Hotness”, at which point the audience was no longer my own, but rather an impromptu audience cobbled together from across Google+ by Google promoting it. I do not have sixty-three thousand people following me, at best I may have a tick over 500 or so who actually honestly follow me regularly.
I do, however, have reach to an audience of thousands, but most of them will notice me once and never pay attention to me again unless I hit What’s Hot again, or maybe post something immediately relevant to them or which ranks high in Search. Perhaps a freshman Social Media Marketer shouldn’t be admitting that their numbers don’t reflect reality, but I could put those hundreds who really do matter, and the much smaller circles within that who matter most, up against tens of thousands of purely numerical followers any day.
I am not famous, anymore than YouTube Star Wars Kid. That is the trap of the Suggested User List, reinforced by the artificial virality of What’s Hot. Had I known all of this, I would have made preparations to ensure the relationships I was building on Google+ did not get damaged in the process, and would have avoided speaking purely “to the audience”. Alas, there is no manual for “How to Handle Internet Famous”. The deed being done, I am now in the process of “de-SUL’ing”/”de-Hotting” my presence. I can’t remove all those tens of thousands of followers, nor honestly would I wish to, but I can keep the most important people closer to me, and keep my own content to the higher, if less viral, standards I usually set for myself.
I realize, almost too late, that I have found what I came to Google+ for: that small group of people who inspire me, enlighten me, teach me, touch my heart, make me laugh, and like my content or, even better, like me as a person. The occasional large audience may be a nice benefit at times (when it doesn’t simply drown out the quality), but for me has been little but a distraction, a brief flicker of popularity that in no way qualifies as a meaningful success in my life. I’m not rolling in Benjamins because of it (in fact I struggle to make ends meet). Fortune 100 Companies are not banging down my door for my help. Jay Leno has never once played anything from my YouTube Channel on his show.
Some people are audience seekers, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The world needs audiences, and people to entertain them. Right now, at least, that is not me, or rather it simply does not satisfy me anymore, and in a way it never really did. Should I ever have a real organic audience as large as my follower count implies I already have, I want it to be a lasting success that reflects my deepest passions, and I believe I would still prefer to keep it as separate as possible from my personal social media accounts, whether on a Fan Page, or a Website, anywhere that it does not come between me and the people who matter most.
Everyone imagines they can handle fame, or the illusion of fame, without letting it go to their heads. I was sure I could do that, and that I would know real fame from internet fame if either ever happened. At times I’ve even joked about being “internet famous” on social media and how it doesn’t really mean anything to me. Let my experience be a warning: it can happen to you too, and it starts by not having a plan for how to keep your real connections closer to you than the ephemeral audience and the illusory limelight. It creeps in viral post by viral post until you start to believe in it, if you aren’t careful.