Avoiding the online popularity contest to seek a deeper connection

April 21, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

Outstanding Stats Social networking and blogging can feel like a high school cafeteria, full of cliques and at-times silly symbols of popularity.  But unlike high school, there are always more people to win over and stages to advance.

Take a step away from the contests and consider applying the lessons you’ve learned in the real world to build deeper relationships online.

The Problem with Faking it Online

We all do it–whether it’s the ratio on Twitter, the subscriber count on a blog, or the number of connections on LinkedIn–we consider this criteria when judging an individual or website.

Recognizing this, we try to improve these metrics for our own profiles and sites–sometimes at the cost of quality:

  • Publishing and writing articles that are more exercises in marketing than thought-provoking opinions
  • Utilizing link-aggregation sites to promote others in return for the same favor (regardless of the quality of the work)
  • Clouding our feeds with people we don’t know or desire to know (in hope for reciprocation or a larger subscriber count)

But at the end of the day, do we want people or numbers? Have we improved our relationships or our fanbase?  Have we grown happier or just created a larger fire to feed?

Relationships in the Real World

Random Happy Photo Before I answer the last question, it’s important to think back to our own transitions from high school to (perhaps college and) the real world.  Every year I think about my relationships and what’s changed, for instance:

  • Who are my most dear friends, the ones I’d like to spend a weekend with, share their special moments, call in times of need?
  • Who have I affected positively, brightened their day, colored their life, lent a helping hand?

If you’re like most , the number of people you’d consider a dear friend decreases or remains steady in adulthood.  You may touch many people, but it’s a small number who you know deeply enough to affect.  I may have more than 500 readers, follows, or connections…but fewer than a dozen are the ones I want beside me when I take my wedding vows (someday).  I don’t think I have a deep impact on most of my social media contacts.  They rarely do on me.

We all have a capacity for quantity when it comes to connections, but most of us long ago accepted just a few people as our most cherished.  After all, it’s those critical few who lead to our happiness.

How this Applies to Social Media

I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t power in numbers, or that relationships aren’t formed online.  But there is a problem–people often let online relationships develop one-way.

Example: after a few weeks subscribing to a new site, I feel a connection with the author(s).  I grow used to their style, become familiar with their interests, and begin to accept their eccentricities. But it’s not really a connection–I’m just a fan.

You might argue that social media (blogs, networks, etc) offers the one form of publishing where the readers do get a voice.  You’d be right, but the question is how much of a voice we allow or ask of people:

  • How often do we reach out to our connections on social networks?
  • How often do we provide opportunities for our readers to participate or answer questions on our blogs?

I recognize that just because we reach out doesn’t mean we’ll get responses.  But when you provide opportunities for input, what are your intentions: are they to increase your comment count, see your name in someone else’s Twitter response…or to really get to know someone better?  If your efforts to reach out are not about genuine interest then it likely will draw fewer responses and definitely will not further your connection with the reader.

"But What About My Numbers?"

Statistics offer validation for potential readers, and they can bring advertising dollars…so it’s important to work on them.  But I don’t think they’re the point.  They may bring you fans, you may win some favors, but they don’t create the type of mutual relationships that further  your well-being.

Think of it another way–popularity is transient , addictive, and has no end point whereas relationships can live without a "content-stream," and they serve to sustain your happiness.

What to Do About It

image Reach out and build relationships, not just numbers.  Don’t forget your friends in the real world.

Here’s a start on this site: I want to get to know you better.  I hope to make this all the more worthwhile for us both.  (The image to the right is of someone who’s a rockstar at getting to know his readers, Clay Collins of The Growing Life)

Please share a comment here to respond or tell me about you: your interests, your website(s), or whatever’s on your mind.  No need to "stay on topic."

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26 Responses to “Avoiding the online popularity contest to seek a deeper connection”

6 Trackbacks

  1. Quien es mi Blamigo? (Who is my blog friend? » The Buzz Bin)
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  6. Technotheory.com – Whether you have the time for them or not, you’ve made your decision


  1. Qui Diaz

    Jared – on point, thoughtful case. I couldn’t agree more with the cautionary advice to build and sustain personal relationships…rather than just rack up online friends/followers. Not that I haven’t succumbed to the pressure myself at times.

    However, I remain unconvinced that everyone out there feels a burning need to cultivate meaning in the meanandering. People are motivated by so many different factors. I count myself lucky to have met someone like you, which would not have happened except for a chance in-person encounter at a networking event. Not everyone goes to those, understands the value of grabbing lunch afterwards.

    To each his/her own. But the real question: how do we instill good relationship/communication skills in the youngin’s? They aren’t being taught the value of holding face-to-face conversations. And a friend of mine who teaches 7th graders said that these kids were – at the beginning of the year – turning in papers peppered with text message abbreviations. Takes your point to a whole new level, yes?

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Qui, thanks for such a thoughtful response. You’re right that people have different hopes and purposes for their time online, and I have a tendency to hone in on one approach and call it the way THINGS SHOULD BE, or whatever.

    No matter your motivations, I guess I’m just begging the question of what it means at the end of the day when you have 5000 people on your list. If you’re selling a product or advertising, there’s value there…but it still seems so easy to get caught up in the popularity and forget about the self-expression and relationship-building.

    I don’t know, maybe this was just a personal rant because I saw myself losing my focus and not finding that deeper satisfaction.

    But back to your points, it’s interesting to see how the younger generation is using technology to communicate. There are all sorts of thoughts I have on etiquette and writing-quality, but I think you’re raising the point of how that affects relationships. And it begs the question of whether the same quality of relationship can be attained via purely-online means. I personally feel that much if not all of it can…but it’s not everyone. To me the question isn’t so much about the means of establishing presence and relationship, as the end of relationships vs statistics.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking comment, Qui. You rock!

  3. Ahson Wardak

    I love your blog by the way.

    For me, it’s not about a followers/followed contest, my Twitter account is for me to keep track of the zeitgeist of technology news. I just try to follow intelligent people that I know will be engaged in conversation about topics that I need to know about.

    In that way, Twitter is more sophisticated than RSS feeds. It’s putting your thumb to the wind to figure out what’s popular. In most cases, I could care less if people choose to follow me or not.

    As for Facebook, increasing numbers of friends is just to remember who’s who. It’s an address book for me – a breathing network.

    I’m also interested in hearing from others.

  4. Victoria Pickering


    Thanks for your blog – I really like reading your advice and the questions you pose. As someone who is a lot older, I’m kind of glad that social media did not exist for most of my adulthood. That’s because not only do the number of one’s friends and acquaintances increase over time at a rate that can feel exponential, but also because the reality is that one does outgrow a lot of friendships, even some that were once very close.

    Thus, one of the big future challenges I see for social media is developing sophisticated tools that allow you to focus on your current close friends as opposed to your former close friends or massively large group of acquaintances. These tools will need to find subtle ways to shift away from friendships that were once close but over time lost their importance (and often this is not mutual, so the tools will have to find a way to help extract you from friendships without hurting the other person’s feelings). Imagine 10-20 years down the road, when you no longer want to hang out with exactly the same group of people or invite them to your parties, and yet it will be completely transparent to them that you’ve decided that they are now not part of your inner circle. Without social media, there have been lots of ways to make it tactful and less obvious that you’ve lost interest in some friends – but now it will be completely obvious, and may often prove painful and difficult for both sides of the relationship.

  5. Jared Goralnick


    I’m glad to hear that you’re really getting a return on your investment in these sites. Maybe I’m more unique in getting sucked into the contest. Thank you for the warm thoughts and for sharing.

  6. Jared Goralnick


    Thanks for the thoughts. You bring up a very interesting point, but that one that implies that we may be using some of the same social networks 10-20 years from now. What’s strange to me is just how many of the friends I had on Friendster and MySpace didn’t carry over even a couple years later (for me) to Facebook. But if we are using the same sites many years from now, you’re right that hey’ll be much less useful without either technology or cultural shifts. Then again, maybe people could just be on our networks and have an Ignore feature…

    You also mention that our volume of acquaintances and friends increase exponentially over time–I wonder if that’s the case naturally or if it’s a byproduct of social media and/or some very specific lifestyles. It seems to me that when many get to raising families the breadth of their contacts gets smaller (though its depth may very well increase). Sure there may be more acquaintances, but I wonder if the number of meaningful relationships decreases… Even amongst the highly social online, I’d be curious how many they consider to be the privileged few confidantes.

    Thanks for a lucid comment–really appreciate your time!

  7. Keith Casey

    Personally, I actively avoid adding people to my Facebook friends list or my LinkedIn list unless I actually know them and have interacted with them. It just seems to dilute the value of the whole thing. For my LinkedIn profile specifically, I keep an eye on how many recommendations I have vs total connections. It’s an arbitrary metric, but I think it’s interesting.

    On the flip side, I have a friend that added lots of people recently. When looking through her list, I found a half dozen people that I *know* she’s never met because they’re friends of mine from way back.

  8. Clay Collins | The Growing Life

    But I need to quantify my popularity, Jared. How else can I set quantifiable popularity goals?!?!

  9. Jared Goralnick


    That’s good that you’ve stayed true to the networks. Whatever that means. I think it can be an uphill battle to keep the filters clean… I just wish we were all honest so the numbers could mean a little more than they do. Thanks for the comment!


    Haha. You and your metrics. But anyone who reads your writing will have an idea about real friends. Hoping to add you to the real world friends list one of these days.

  10. Clay Collins | The Growing Life

    @Jared: Bro, you’re on it.

  11. Victoria Pickering

    Jared -
    Thanks for your response. A couple of years ago, I would have thought that the solution to friend overload was the continual creation of new social networks, with only a limited number of your friends moving to each new network. But now, given portability and other means of transferring data, I think that new networks won’t help with having too many “friends,” and the ways of cutting back (defriending, creating private networks, ignoring, etc.) will be hurtful.

    As to whether people get more friends over time, I think there are probably two categories – those whose friendship circle expands and those whose friendship circle contracts. It can get hard on the people with a large friendship circle, since the people with limited circles tend to depend on them for social outlets. How to handle these imbalanced relationships, which get more numerous and messier over time, will be a major problem as social networks expand. Personally, if most of my age group was using social media, I think I’d have to spend tons of time (and not especially rewarding time) figuring out how to avoid hurting people without continuing to string along relationships which were of limited value to me. Without social media exposure, I think it is much easier to move away from people gently rather than hurtfully. Although maybe people who have spent their entire lives on social media will figure out better ways of coping.

  12. Ben Cope


    I appreciated reading this article … I think you are right about people who simply try to inflate their popularity online! I think one reason people do this is because they simply don’t understand how to maximize their social marketing efforts. Someone told them they could make a fortune on MySpace by simply adding as many friends as they possibly can, or they add new friends on Twitter just because that is what everyone else is touting as the “next big thing.” I think in the end the quality of the people you’ve added as your friends is far more important than the quantity! While there’s nothing wrong with building a large list of subscribers or building up your list of friends, it’s the personal relationship that will bring higher profits!

  13. Qui Diaz

    Glad to see this conversation continued! Your thoughts inspired my Buzz Bin post today (http://www.livingstonbuzz.com/blog/).

    It also lead to me potentially coining a new, stupid Web 2.0 term: “blamigo.” Thanks for being one of mine (in the real world, too.) See you Thursday.

  14. Melle

    “popularity is transient , addictive, and has no end point” – Amen.

    I ranted this little rant a while back because of Leisa Reichelt’s ““Ambient Intimacy” piece.

    My thoughts were the same as yours – “amassing” people doesn’t enrich anything, especially yourself.

    That said, I’ve since started (and kept) using Twitter, and have connected with some really cool people. I’ve also made the acquaintance of some “internet famous” folks and have gotten to see, from the inside, what it’s like to have that profile. The absurdity can be mind-boggling at times.

    Bottom line, thinking about relationships in terms of metrics or needing to ask how to be authentic and transparent is pretty much proof that, as the lolcats say, “ur doin it wrong”.

  15. Laura (Pistachio Fitton)

    Thanks for this. To be candid I’ve found a surge (however micro) in online popularity to carry both wonders and thorns. It’s a little overwhelming sometimes. There is a very real risk of harming or neglecting true friends for trying to keep up and be polite with all the buzz.

    I understand people use “popularity” as a proxy for validity, quality, authority and credibility. In itself, the practice reflects the scarcity of time to read and engage with many different voices. But it does have its up and downsides.

    What makes me warm with joy is when beautiful loving people emerge from the masses and come into my life and a more meaningful way. So the numbers probably increase my chances of that happening. So I am very grateful.

  16. Sue Murphy

    Great article, Jared, and nice to meet you. I came across your blog thanks to a tweet by Chris Brogan. Enjoying it very much.

    What I think is interesting is that there seems to be a stigma attached to openly wanting to get to know people online. It can be misconstrued as “wannabe”, “creepy” or “needy”. I think the opposite is true. It’s easy to weed out the people who have ulterior motives like winning popularity contests or forcing their way into the “in” crowd. What I like about my social network is that the people who are part of it are so accessible, easy to talk to and they are just nice people.

    So as requested here’s a brief introduction:

    My name is Susan Murphy, I live in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada with my husband, 2 cats and 2 dogs. I’m a video and new media producer with my own company called Jester Creative. In my spare time I like to write, blog, sing and play guitar, and socialize online and off.

    My links are as follows:

    murphy.sue at gmail dot com

    Nice to meet you, look forward to getting to know you.

  17. Jared Goralnick


    Thank you for your thoughts–I’ve come across a few of your WordPress themes in re-designing our site (yes, it’s going to look VERY different very soon), and I’ve enjoyed your work.

    Interesting point about the financial value of real connections–yes, a bunch of followers isn’t as valuable in ANY way as meaningful connections with real people.

  18. Jared Goralnick

    Melle, thanks for responding and sharing your own rant. I guess the paradox is both how much better we do know people through new media…and yet how we only know so much. As for the thought on transparency and authenticity, I find that amongst those who aren’t “in the know” that they often DO get social media involvement wrong. Fortunately a lot of people smarter than me have kept writing about how to get it right.

    Sue, great to meet you! You’re right that it’s pretty easy to see who’s genuine and that many (most?) people online who reach out have good intentions. I can personally say that I’ve added so many great people to my life through the internet (and not just through the new wave of social media)

  19. Jared Goralnick


    I guess you would know more than many about the virtues and dangers of online interaction. (I mean, you’re good at this stuff!) I hadn’t considered that as the quantity goes up, the likeliness of finding gems also increases. I’m really glad to hear that it’s led to many of those in your life.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  20. Matt

    Still letting this peculate. Good thoughts. It got me thinking about what the goal of a brand might be as it engages in social media. For instance, if a brand could get people to follow them, and engage, what kind of conversation would that be? Would that even be a conversation?

    In a marketing sense, they are engagements. So is buying/using a product. For brands, they need to move from engagements to longer term engaging tools. I think. And brands will have to avoid faking it as they go for numbers — for different reasons.

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