Seeking relevance

May 4, 2009 § 3 Comments

A recent  post by my pal, Sherry Heyl, The Future of the Web (is not Twitter!), got me thinking once again about relevance. Sherry aptly pointed out that the tools of communication are always evolving, but the pace of evolution (and revolution) of those tools continues to increase.

The Internet isn’t a single form of communication, it is a breeding ground for millions of experiments in ways for people to reach each other, singly and en masse.  If a new tool is lucky and skillfully promoted it may gain attention and grow audience, but unfortunately relevance does not always scale with the numbers. Something that starts out relevant can lose focus or become dissipated by the noise of an ever-increasing user base.  Success seems to necessitate an aftermarket of filters and management tools for any social media experiment to retain relevance for its users. 

Part of the challenge is that relevance isn’t a one size fits all proposition.  I may find discussions of Drupal theming to be quite relevant to me, a Drupal user, but your mileage may vary. I’m also going to seek out information on cutting-edge marketing – left to external filters, the marketing and the Drupal are not likely to get lumped together, but for me the combination is highly relevant.  

Wikipedia seems to do a good job of maintaining relevance by embracing irrelevance, or rather by embracing the notion of asymmetric relevance.  Those that really care about a subject have an opportunity to get highly involved in the discourse, while others are free to get engaged in completely other topics. But don’t mix ’em! If you try bringing something irrelevant or off-topic to any given Wikipedia article it will be made abundantly clear that only relevance is welcome here.  This is why you can find great articles on particle physics and equally great articles on B movies.  

Unfortunately Twitter doesn’t seem to be doing as good a job of cultivating relevance.  Today I received a follow from a Twitter user and did my usual investigation – I looked at the user’s profile and observed that this user had 1000 or so followers and about 1300 they were following. These weren’t unusual numbers by any means, but what I found odd was that the number of messages this Twitter user had actually produced to date was two.  That’s it, two messages: The first a mention that the user had just added a background to the profile, and the second being a link to the user’s website – an unveiled come-on promoting an ebook.  It seems highly unlikely to me that upwards of 1000 people, based on these two simple messages have really found the relevance emanating from this user to be sufficient to warrant subscribing to the Twitter account.  I suspect, however, that a 1000+ people have auto-following setup via a 3rd party tool and probably have no idea that they’ve volunteered to  receive the messages from this user, or many of the others that are now dissipating the relevance of their Twitter streams.  

Many are choosing to ignore relevance in the hopes of rapidly growing their audience, but an audience that is built on irrelevance isn’t an audience that’s listening. It is an audience that is ignoring, or at best, filtering.

How are you managing the balance of irrelevance and relevance in your use of social media?  How do you keep open to things that you don’t yet know will be relevant to you, when you’re trying to filter a sea of questionable information?

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§ 3 Responses to Seeking relevance

  • Thoughtful post. For PR purposes, relevance is always a priority. Some metrics for me are influence, sentiment and timeliness. A tool that can’t help me measure these concerns may be interesting, but ultimately not useful. Twitter is a great tool for immediacy but it needs to be supplemented with other tools that prioritize the millions upon millions of tweets coming at us.

    • davidscohen says:

      Thanks Dan. As you find good tools, please let me know. I’ve seen Twitter do really cool things to help bring together groups of people with shared interests that would otherwise have been highly unlikely to find each other, but it seems like lately the signal-to-noise ratio is getting difficult to manage, and that kind of serendipitous meeting that happened less than 6 months ago seems a whole lot less likely today.

  • sherry heyl says:

    it will always be a battle. People look for fast cheap ways to splatter their message all over the place. When you consider the ROI – if fast and cheap brings enough of a return, why bother being strategic and relevant – which takes a lot of work. Technology is developed to make life faster and more efficient, and now cheap, so it is a magnet to spammers. We will always be running from them unless the technology and as you mentioned, the community managers, begin to focus on finding ways to gate the community keeping spammers away.

    That in itself becomes a challenge because good sales techniques can sometime be a blurry line of spam.

    So control cannot be too controlled.

    That is why I think we are leaning more toward personalized content and interfaces as well as more niched communities.

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