I blame James Governor, Tim O’Reilly and Ross Mayfield for this post. James first got me thinking about the phenomenon of asymmetry in modern communications as a result of DMing me a few days ago with his Asymmetric Follow post, an absolute must-read. He then followed it up with another, looking at Dopplr rather than Twitter; in between, Tim O’Reilly then tweeted about it to Robert Scoble, connecting the phenomenon with Robert’s “DM hell”. And before I’d worked out where my head was at on all this, Ross Mayfield went and wrote this.
Enough name-dropping for you? Don’t worry, that’s not the intention. Some of you may wonder why anyone would bother with all this kerfuffle. Is this just a bunch of “social media experts” theorising about some obscure statistical phenomenon? Not really, there are some very important points being made here. Three in particular are worth emphasising:
- People in a Web 2.0 network are not uniformly connected; some have more connections than others
- Connections have directions; the number of inbound connections may far exceed the number of outbound connections, creating an asymmetric environment
- This is particularly true of “default-public” networks such as Twitter; Flickr is also likely to evince similar behaviour.
I think there’s more to it. Many years ago, I was honoured to receive a visit from Yossi Vardi; I arranged to have a colleague of mine, Stu Berwick, join me for part of the session. When we were discussing IM, Stu made an observation which really struck a chord with me. He said:
In IM, it’s polite to be silent
I knew something was rattling at the back of my mind when I read James’s post; it took me a while before I figured out it was Stu’s comment. I think the particular “politeness convention” that’s in place has a lot to do with the potential for asymmetry. In order for twitter to become asymmetrical, it must be OK for me not to reply to a tweet. If I am forced to reply then it doesn’t work. If I am expected to reply then it still doesn’t work. But if it’s OK for me to say nothing, then it works.
What is this thing that works? Asymmetric follow. Why? Because I am no longer expected to reply to everything that comes in. People who receive a lot of snail mail or e-mail don’t reply to everything that comes in either, so what’s the difference? The difference is in the perception of polite behaviour.
It’s rude not to answer a telephone call; it’s rude not to call back when a voicemail has been left; it’s rude not to reply to an e-mail; in fact it’s rude not to provide sympathetic sounds when listening to someone on the other end of a phone. [That last politeness convention has had an unintended consequence ever since the mobile phone was invented, the regular need to intersperse conversation with "are you there?"].
It’s not rude to ignore a SMS. It’s not rude to ignore an IM. It’s not rude to ignore a tweet. Even an @tweet. Even a DM.
The politeness issue alone is not enough either. This whole thing is exacerbated, beautifully exacerbated, by the 140 character limit of Twitter. Because we can now have “continuous partial asymmetry”. Someone who has 4000 followers can choose to reply to the @s of 400 of the followers, because of two critical things. One, the cost of replying to the @ is low. And two, you can vary the particular 400 you’re replying to. Yes you’re constrained, ostensibly by personal bandwidth, from replying to everyone all the time. But because you manage to reply to some of the people some of the time, nobody feels left out, the weak ties remain in place and everything works.
As a result of this continuous partial asymmetry, there is one more valuable, yet unintended, consequence. A-listing is less of an issue. The conversations that take place extend well beyond narrow echo chambers, there’s always an infusion of fresh voices into the conversation, yet barriers to entry remain low.
Just thinking. There’s something quite important here, and I’m going to have to gnaw away at it.