Numbers are sexy. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube prominently display counts of friends, followers, likes and views to seduce visitors. Does it really make sense, though, to measure social media influence in the digital era using these means?
Certainly, numbers are not irrelevant. Often, high connection counts online correlate with high connection counts offline, not to mention that virtual connections can certainly be real in and of themselves. And being able to point to an impressive metric of influence can cast an objectively positive light on one's reach, impressing peers and improving attractiveness to corporate advertisers.
Yet these numbers come with a cost. The presence of "trolls" and "flame wars" where users contaminate online discussion with offensive or irrelevant material is a frequent issue for areas where comment is open to all. This content is distinct from automated spam in form but not in kind – both spam and vacuous contributions detract from the coherency of the discussion at hand and, eventually, erode online communities. Indeed, the greater the numbers in any community, the greater the odds of contracting a particularly virulent strain of Internet commentators.
In the analog world, the opportunity to judge popularity with numbers barely even presents itself outside of political elections. Context dictates everything in physical communities. A chance encounter with a single acquaintance can change one's entire perspective, regardless of that person's clout in circles extraneous to your own.
How does this differ in a digitally–mediated world? Connection between individuals is still of paramount importance. Yet, friend and follower counts tend to obscure this fact with a layer of generality that can get in the way of a successful personal connection. And the way in which websites present these numbers make an impact on how users respond to them.
My Community Manager co–founder, Tim McDonald, notes, "In big data, each number still represents a single person. I'd rather have 10 people who produced 100x return, than 1,000,000 people just getting me seen. The largest impact comes from the smallest numbers."
The contrast between online video portals YouTube and Vimeo presents a great example of the difference between sites driven by community and sites driven by numbers. Despite basically identical functionality and purpose, each site has carved such a distinct path that it's almost hard to imagine them as direct competitors.
YouTube is the quantity giant, home to three–second videos of the insides of pockets, 10–hour loops of web sensation "Gangnam Style," and everything in between. You never quite know when you'll end up in the "weird part of YouTube," when a trail of curiosity leads to some truly strange and often sheerly time–wasting experiences.
Sticking with popular videos, however, doesn't protect anyone. It's almost as if there is a community on YouTube working to preserve the omnipresence of offensive commentary. Some videos with just a few hundred views readily provoke personal attacks on the uploader. Downvoting and flagging help to hide such responses, but these tools serve to silence legitimate minority opinion just as often as they hide irrelevant material. What's more, the offenders are often referenced in outraged replies that ironically ensure the provocative comment's longevity.
The size of YouTube's user base breeds a culture of anonymity that Google has recently attempted to combat by encouraging members to link their accounts with their real names and/or Google+ accounts. Uploaders have the ability to silence comments altogether, but silencing the potential community completely is quite a different thing from acting to foster it.
A video hosted by Vimeo, in contrast with YouTube, seems to have some inherent guarantee of quality, not just in the moving picture but also in the feedback. That could be due to stricter content restrictions – but it seems that those restrictions are part of a broader cultural dynamic on the site that focuses on the integrity of members and the quality of their work. Wherefore this cultural contrast?
In any situation where cause and effect seem disconnected, it's wise to follow the money. In this case, YouTube and Vimeo have different economic models, the former collecting revenue primarily from ads and the latter appearing to rely primarily on premium memberships.
It's likely that the emphasis on advertisements has put YouTube in a position where they need those sexy numbers of view counts and subscribers to succeed. Conflict draws more users in, and positive experiences are irrelevant as long as the audience stuck around to look at an ad or 10.
Meanwhile, Vimeo's reliance on premium members forces a focus on the experience of the content creator. Spam and imbecility are more significant to the creator than to the consumer, and it's more than a coincidence that there is a real lack of offensive comments on Vimeo. But being a member of the Vimeo community, no matter of one's premium status, is give as well as take. Paying members have been known to face immediate expulsion for overlooked infractions of Vimeo's terms – a surprising lack of tolerance for those who play an outsized role in the growth of "freemium" products like Vimeo – but not so surprising if one sees these users as putting the values of the whole Vimeo community at risk.
Co–founder of My Community Manager and freelancer, Brandie McCallum explains, "As similiar as YouTube and Vimeo are, their audiences and therefore communities are vastly different. This plays into what content is being shared and commented on. A paid community is going to be a lot more exclusive and less forgiving where an open community's members are all screaming to be heard through the noise."
The takeaway is not that Vimeo's model is economically or morally superior; it is merely different, and it is viable on its own ground. Establishing a community by enforcing standards of content is one way that modern websites can distinguish themselves in the vast reaches of the Internet. Productive conversation happens a higher proportion of the time on Vimeo, but due to the smaller user base, it does happen more rarely on the whole.
Tim McDonald adds, "The foundation of all business is based on relationships. Relationships are person to person, not one to many. Community is people who share common values. It takes commitment – In contrast, Likes are transactional and only take a single click."
Creating an environment for social growth is important, but never as important as the social growth itself. What truly matters in social media, regardless of the type of media, is the connection between one human being and another. Let's never forget that.
Sam Lloyd recently graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in cognitive science (major) and digital arts (minor). He currently writes freelance articles online and reviews software.
Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business.