The Flip Side of a Big Audience

January 13, 2012

"Bloggers are famous enough to have stalkers, but not famous enough to have bodyguards." —Danny O'Brien

Everyone thinks they want a million Twitter followers and a million pageviews a day on their blog and the incredible high that it must be to walk around in the world knowing you're "internet famous." Yes, being famous among dozens has its privileges, but it also has a flip side netizens rarely discuss.

I passed 200,000 followers on Twitter this week. I'm not a celebrity. I've written books and made apps, but I've never been on primetime TV and I wasn't on Twitter's suggested user list during its heyday. I am an early adopter, a dedicated self-promoter, a daily user, and a leader in two large internet communities. All these things translated into an outsized follower count on both Twitter and Google+. Nowadays, when someone notices my follower count—and many people do, because it's a status symbol which indicates which echelon of web society you belong to—they get wide-eyed. "Wow, you're famous," they say.

Reality check: Lady Gaga is famous. Bloggers are not famous.

I'm not famous, but I have an outsized audience. I can ask a question and get hundreds of replies, reshares, and favorites in a matter of hours. If I want a lot of people to see something, I can make that happen in a few keystrokes without any help from a PR firm or media outlet. I've mentioned my follower counts and blog stats in book deal and paycheck negotiations, because people who hire me are often buying my ability to market my book or project.

But you know what else happens when you have an outsized audience?

You field a weekly flood of pitches.

Having a big audience means you're a commodity, and you get to constantly field pitches from strangers, acquaintances, former co-workers, and distant family members who you never hear from otherwise asking you to mention their new app, book, Kickstarter project, or MySpace page. People decide how important you are by your Klout score and treat you accordingly. Ad agencies look up how much your tweets are worth and recruit you to tweet on behalf of their clients for money. It's a bizarre and sometimes awkward crash course in saying "sorry, no" to the requests that just don't feel right (and most of them don't).

People who don't know you make wildly inaccurate assumptions about things you say.

If you crack a joke, use sarcasm, or don't fully explain your 140-character statement, you will be misunderstood, because most of your followers barely know you. Last week I said I have mixed feelings about lesbian contestants in a beauty pageant. A handful of people tried to explain why lesbians are just as worthy of beauty pageants as heterosexual women. Having to explain stinks.

You forget how to share with people who do know you.

To avoid misunderstandings, you start dumbing down your posts and only writing things which are literal and mostly non-controversial. (At least I do.) But that means your friends don't enjoy the connection that comes with hearing you be you, instead of edited-you. In an attempt to fix this problem, I set my Facebook user profile to friends-only access. But by now I'm so ruined by my addiction to the flood of retweets, favorites, and replies I get from public posts to my big audience, I spend less time sharing privately.

You get addicted to the approval of strangers.

The addiction to the attention you get from a crowd of strangers turns you into a performer instead of a sharer. You look for cheap laughs, stars, retweets, and replies, instead of meaningful conversation with people you actually care about.

Your view of the world gets skewed.

An outsized audience presents problems like the ones listed here that no one else has. When you have a big audience, you're the 1% of the web, and that means your view of the world is skewed. You get paranoid about privacy, cynical about requests from friends, and impatient about misunderstandings. I spent two years building an app that helps people organize and archive hundreds of tweet replies, solving a problem that basically no one else has.

You're a spam magnet and a troll target.

Like mosquitoes to a lightbulb at night, high visibility attracts spammers. Seven percent of the comments I receive on a given post on Google+ can be spam. Seven percent! Not to mention the daily trolling, harassment, and for women, weekly messages from men who feel the need to share their opinion on your physical appearance.

At this point you're wondering, If having a big audience is so bad, why not just shut down your accounts and start fresh under an unknown pseudonym? On more than one occasion, I've considered burning it all down and going back to using these tools for their intended purpose: as a way to keep up with friends.

But ultimately the advantages of an outsized audience outweigh the crappy parts for me. Even when I have a job that pays a salary, I work with a freelancer's mind-set. Employers, projects, and clients will come and go, but I've created an online network under my own name that's helped me a lot more than it's hindered me.

Still, when someone tells me they want more Twitter followers and a highly-trafficked blog and the ability to reach so many people so easily, I usually say, "Be careful what you wish for."