Our faith in social media


Who receives your tweets? Who actually reads your blog? Is there anybody out there at all? Answers to these questions elude most of us when we send something out into the ether, whether it is a photograph, video or written piece. Most bloggers and tweeters rely on an unfounded belief that there is an audience out there digesting their content. However, the reality is likely to be much less inspiring and our audiences are likely to be much smaller than we imagine. But does this matter? Even if we have sophisticated statistic trackers that tell us we have thousands of viewers, the details of this engagement are unclear. The majority of visits to websites last less than a minute, suggesting that our audiences may have found us by mistake or that, once found, it took them a few seconds to realize we were not what they were looking for. We have to come to terms with the fact that many of our visitors may have found us by mistake.My own consumption of content leads me to this view, though I think the absence of an audience is not reason to feel disheartened. Before I explain why not, let me first outline the situation via my own use of social media.

I use Tweetdeck to visualize Twitter feeds on my laptop, Twitter application on my Android phone and access social media from Facebook and Flickr on both mobile and laptop. Each morning, I open up my Tweetdeck and have a few hundred tweets that are unread. If I were to scan through all of these – just reading and not clicking on links, etc – it would probably take me a couple of hours just to get through all of them. As the day progresses updates are shown to me in a pop up window on my screen from time to time. I follow approximately 400 people or institutions. Generally, when viewing tweets by Tweetdeck I skim scroll through the unread tweets, or, if time is short, I may just look at what is presently on view within my browser. On my mobile phone, I use my touch screen scroll facility rather like a one arm bandit at a casino – flick the scroll and see what ends up on the screen. To go through each one would just take up far too much time and I like the randomnesss of the quick skim.

However, in both cases, I would predict that I experience less than 30% of the tweets that I receive. This means that the majority of the tweets go unread and unnoticed. The same is true of Facebook. I have around 900 friends in Facebook, but feel like I receive updated from around only 100 people. I can think of people whose updates I rarely receive – perhaps because they do not publish them openly – but whose accounts are regularly updated with content. For Flickr, I receive notifications that friends have uploaded new photos, but rarely search through all the uploaded images, perhaps at best scrolling through the first few pages.

What does all this mean? First, it may mean you need to be more strategic with your social media. Consider when might be the most effective time to tweet, based on your expected audience. For example, if you live in the UK and expect your viewers are mostly from there, perhaps tweeting at 845am will allow you to reach more people, as workers check their new content on their way to work or perhaps once at work. Second, you may limit the amount of content that you tweet. While it appears that the more tweets one undertakes, the more likely one is to grow ‘followers’, if you are seeking deep engagement with your followers, then fewer and more focused tweets might work better. Third, it is already clear that the word ‘friends’ does not quite fit within places like Facebook. It is now standard practice to friend anyone who requests – and automated ‘suggested friends’ makes this concept of friendship even more inadequate. This changes how we use social media and how we feel about it. If you want Facebook to be a place where you can connect with just your closest friends then you may have to risk offending a colleague and just click ‘ignore’ to their friend request. What’s the worst that could happen?

Each of these actions may ensure that you send out content that is experienced by more people, but it is certainly no guarantee. Of course we should not worry too much about the imagined community of followers that surround our content. The possibility of an audience can inspire us to put out content and be productive creative people.

Yet, this is why I liken our productivity to a faith. We are required to believe that there is a good in itself with putting content out there, which, at some point, may be found by someone and be of interest to them for some reason. Whether somebody is listening or not may not matter at all. We have to believe that somebody has been touched by our content, which is why the ‘retweet’ is such a treasure.

To feel part of the public sphere and part of what people talked about when claiming that the internet democratizes communication can promote our own agency and engagement with the world around us. But, let’s not kid ourselves; that tweet or blog post we just wrote that seems to have captured the zeitgeist may just as easily be missed, especially if we forget to use the damn hashtag or, even worse, use the wrong one.