Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Tag: relationships

The Mystery of the Silent Partner, Part II: Three Additional Theories

In a post this past August, I discussed a relationship I had observed on Twitter that I called the “silent partner”: accounts that follow you but never interact with you, or those who follow you back, but seemingly refuse interaction. I had put forth some proposals on why these connections occur, but I’ve since developed three additional theories on why you may find yourself linked up with a silent partner.

First, you may have become trapped in what I call the “follow-back haystack”. If your silent partner follows back everyone who follows them (a custom I find unnecessary), their timeline will become choked with thousands upon thousands of tweeters. Your questions, observations, mentions, and references get lost in the shuffle: the needles in their haystack. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like trying to raise your voice in a crowded restaurant or bar. You’re not silent, and neither is your partner, but they’re dealing with far too much noise to hear you. Some follow-back users are better at getting back to mentions than most, but even then, it may simply be a matter of your post getting viewed a just the right moment.

Your silent partner could also be a “list-exclusive conversationalist”: one who only pays attention to those they’ve added to a Twitter list or TweetDeck group. This is especially true if they’re the follow-back type: what better way to cut through all the noise of their timeline then to converse only with a select group of friends, colleagues, and peers? These users may tune back into their timeline now and again, but if you’re not on one of their lists, you may as well be tweeting into the ether.

Or, lastly, your silent partner may be an “inattentive idler”: someone who is either sporadically active on Twitter or who dropped off the map altogether. They may have followed you after comments you made in a Twitter chat, or a mention in one of their friend’s timelines. In the meantime, though, they either lost interest or were never really that much into Twitter in the first place. If the idlers only post once every few weeks or months, they’re not likely to spend time scanning back through their timeline’s history to catch up on your posts. Plus, mentions may fall on deaf ears if they’re away for extended periods.

I’m sure there are other ways to diagnose the syndrome of “silent partners”. What symptoms have you observed in your travels through the Twitterverse?

The Conundrum of Critical Mass

How much noise must you tolerate in a social network to attain a reliable set of responses to your posts? Would the content and value of those responses be sufficient to balance the “wheat vs. chaff” formula in your network? What’s that magic number or ratio that marks the “critical mass” of your network to essentially guarantee feedback? Should such an objective even matter to you? What about privacy concerns?

This is a philosophical thought exercise I’ve been bouncing back and forth in my head for a while now. I call it the conundrum of critical mass.

You can keep a smaller, more meticulously pruned network to have stronger control over whom can view and comment on your content, but you suffer a larger chance of being lost in the crowd. Or, you can expand the network to whoever’s willing to join, but risk having to wade through the waterfall of content coming your way and deal with folks commenting randomly on any piece of content you post. Sure, you can tweak your settings to view only the specific folks whose content you’d like to read and interact with (which helps with the input on your end), but it can be more labor-intensive to adjust which members of your network can read and interact with your content.

The risk of the tighter network model is that any of your given posts have a higher risk of missing the mark. You have a smaller audience, which could result in either 1) the post wasn’t interesting or relevant to them, or 2) they weren’t online when it was posted and it’s lost in the stream of posts from their other friends.

Or, you can play the indifferent or uninhibited cards and simply not bother to care. There are plenty of folks on Twitter, for example, that will just ignore the vast majority of mentions and direct messages from their followers, even if they’ve made the effort to follow them back.

Yep, I realize this post is self-examination. I don’t claim to be a brilliant, witty, or inspirational person (despite what you may have been told), but it’s the interactions between individuals in social networks that really interest me. I’m always curious to know what content gets people interested and engaged without coming across as chatty or self-serving. At the same time, I’m constantly conscious of the privacy implications in social networks: basically, avoiding whatever content would be sharing too much.

The Mystery of the Silent Partner

Social media produces some interesting and downright curious behaviors. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a rather compelling relationship that’s popped up in my social interactions. It tends to manifest in two similar fashions:

  • Someone chooses to follow or friend you. They’re active within their own network; it’s not a spammer or automated account, but a real person, just like you. No matter what you post, write about, or discuss, they never talk to you, retweet you, or share any of your links. And yet, after weeks or months of time, they’re still a follower or friend of yours.
  • You choose to follow or friend someone, and they then follow or friend you back. You like what the person posts, writes about, or discusses. You retweet them, comment on their activity, and try to engage with them. No matter what you do, however, they never respond (except, perhaps with invitations to be their friend on other social networks).

I call this relationship the “silent partner.”

For those watching at home, there are key subtleties to the “silent partner.” First, they are always connected to you by their own will. They chose to follow or friend you, not the other way around. And, for Twitter, it’s not always an auto-follow, either. Second, they’re not the New York Times or Mashable accounts; big names or key influencers in their respective fields who post and share content but don’t engage with specific individuals, even if you make an attempt to do so. They’re personal or corporate accounts who are otherwise talking and sharing with others, just not you.

What mystifies me about the “silent partner” is, well, their silence.

For me, I’m curious about the value you bring to their network. After all, they’re connected to you for a reason. You couldn’t possibly be that boring, chatty, or annoying to them, otherwise, they would have severed the connection long before now. And it’s not because the “silent partners” have massive numbers of followers or friends, where my posts would be small ripples in their community pool. Some of the accounts I’ve studied have very manageable numbers, and my chatter would be noticeable. Not to mention, I regularly engage with accounts with thousands or tens of thousands of connections; they’re talking back to me.

Based on these assumptions, it seems that neither the content you produce nor the size of the partners’ communities are clear, straightforward causes of their silence. So, what could it be?

For the “silent partners” who follow but never engage, my guess is that they pay attention to only a core piece of their community, using either Twitter lists or groups within Facebook, for example. Perhaps they desire the status of having a large number of friends or followers and focus only those who matter to them. Or, maybe they’re reluctant to let go of those they’ve attached themselves to and simply put up with you. In any case, they tend to fit the classical profile of the “lurker”: the person who simply reads and consumes without contributing back.

As for the “silent partners” with whom you try to engage with but never get a response back, that’s a trickier assumption. It could be the same thought as above, but they’re obviously ignoring you for some reason. Maybe what you say isn’t worth their time. Maybe you haven’t passed some sort of litmus test to be “worthy” of their engagement. Maybe they’re just watching to see what you’re all about.

Overall, the concept of the “silent partner” is one I want to examine further.  I’m considering directly contacting some of mine to see if my assumptions are correct.

What about you, my dear followers? Do you have similar experiences? Or are you yourself the “silent partner” of your community? I’ve love to hear from you. That is, if you’re willing to break your silence…

Update (10-25-10): After a few additional months of observation and some excellent feedback from my fellow twitternauts, I wrote a follow-up post to this entry. I’ve introduced three additional theories on why “silent partners” exist.

Notes from Radian6’s Online Seminar on Open Leadership in Social Media

On Friday, July 30, 2010, I attended an online seminar hosted by Radian6 and starring Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group. Charlene talked about key points from her book, “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead”. Below are some brief elaborations of the key points I live-tweeted during the seminar. You can listen to the entire recording on Radian6’s website.

Please note: All quoted text is attributed to Charlene, not me.

  • “You are no longer in control because of these social technologies. Have the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control” of both the message and the medium.
  • The dialog between businesses and their customers is changing from formal press releases to chats on Facebook (John Deere) and question-and-answer sessions on Twitter (Best Buy’s Twelpforce). Starbucks is successful in crowdsourcing, for example, because they take the time to integrate it into their business (My Starbucks Idea). These relationships will deepen as the culture of sharing becomes more accepted.
  • Learn and listen first. There is a movement from traditional market research to “anyone who can do a search”. Learning comes ahead of dialog, supporting, and innovating. Monitoring tools are key t0 success in learning about your customers and their needs; free, online tools like Google Blog Search and Twitter’s search engine are great starting points for listening.
  • When businesses consider entering social media, they should think about blogs. “Blogs establish thought leadership” and showcase the act of sharing with your clients, partners, employees, etc. CEO blogs are good examples of this.
  • Respect that the relationship your users want with you may not include engaging; they may just want to watch. When responding to feedback found via social media monitoring, start with comments on blogs. Use a personal approach instead of simply acknowledging the post with “send me an e-mail”; it’s less unsettling and sets a more comfortable tone.
  • Pick one of your annual strategic goals where being open and social will have an impact. This decision is crucial for budget and buy-in from senior management.
  • Prepare your organization for the new relationships your company will have when going social. Think about how you’re going to engage negative comments or reviews. Prepare for failure. Encourage dialog to foster trust and speed recovery. Follow Google’s mantra: “Fail fast and fail smart”.
  • Create “sandbox covenants”: rules of engagement for how open your business will be in social media.
  • Trust is not an absolute; it is built over time. “You may not trust a lot, so you may need to start with a small base”. Make small gains and show discipline in order to gain trust in use of social media and openness. You can’t have trust without responsibility. Being open means understanding the promises you’re making by establishing a relationship with your customers; it requires accountability.
  • Explaining and updating are two ways people are often open within their organization. Being open doesn’t mean completely open, however; you don’t need to share everything. Most businesses have false sense of what “openness” means in social media.
  • The key employees to seek out when staffing social media channels are those who are “obsessed about developing that relationship [between the business and the customer]. They see themselves as the glue tying people together” and can come from any dept: PR, IT, marketing, investor relations, etc.
  • One of the biggest problems with social media in business is, “who owns the technology”. HP, for example, has multiple Facebook pages for their brands, but each has a consistent look-and-feel to help unite them.
  • Capturing social media information for compliance (a requirement for government agencies) is difficult. There are ways to accomplish this on the back-end, but can be a challenge to identify people. The structure of regulated industries can give a more defined focus on how to drive their efforts. Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Pfizer are examples of large, regulated firms who are well-established in social media.

Some of the many quotable quotes from the seminar included:

  • “Can being more open help connect you with your customers? What do your customers what you to be more open about?”
  • “You never know what’s going to happen on the other side of that tweet.”
  • “I look at blogs and Twitter as two great cousins working together.”
  • “People realize [that social media] isn’t a bright, shiny object any more… it’s here to stay.”

Many thanks to Radian6 and Charlene for an excellent seminar.

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