What’s More Important: Your Beliefs or Your Follower Count?

Should you really be worried about losing followers for voicing your opinion on blogs and social networks?

About two weeks ago, I linked to a story on NPR.org titled “Redefining Empathy in Light of web’s Long Memory.” The basis of the story is the sad fact that people have been losing their jobs or having old personal information resurface publicly because of information posted on the Web. This information isn’t usually damaging when looked at objectively, but when taken out of context or examined through magnifying glasses wielded by small-minded people, they can be embarrassing — or in one instance covered in the story, ruin someone’s life.

I linked to the story on Twitter because a very close Twitter friend, who is new to social networking, had been making foolish comments on Twitter and Facebook — comments far more likely to get her in trouble than the examples in the story. But it was another Twitter friend who replied:

That article is a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online. I’ve had followers drop me for posting religious

The tweet was cut off by Twitter’s 140-character minimum, but you can end it with the word “views” or “articles” and you’ll get the gist of what he was saying.

Indeed, I know exactly what he means. Although he and I share general religious views — that is, we’re non-believers — he had a tendency to link to the more radically inspired content online, content that could be seen as seriously offensive by believers. (Hell, some of it even offended me to the point that I stopped following his links.) While it’s one thing to read and link to logic-based arguments against religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it’s quite another to read and link to “radical atheist” content. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe and here’s why;” it’s another to say “You’re a moron for believing.”

I did notice that he’d stopped tweeting so many of those links, but it wasn’t until his response above that I realized why.

And this got me thinking about something else: why we blog or participate in social networks.

Does Follower Count Matter?

Follower count is never something that concerned me — especially on Twitter. The vast majority of people on Twitter don’t actively participate. How can they when some of them are following hundreds or thousands of people? Twitter would become a full-time job if you actually read the tweets of more than 100-200 people.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’ve never followed more than 140 people at a time and am constantly dropping noisemakers in favor of thought-provokers. I actually read the tweets in my timeline. You can read more about my thoughts on the follower count game in “Twitter is NOT a Popularity Contest.”)

So if so few followers actually read and respond to what you say, the overall value of followers is diminished. You’re not networking when the communication is ignored. That leaves me to wonder why people should actually care about how many followers they have.

After all, it’s not the quantity of your followers, it’s the quality. I’d rather have just 10 followers who interact with me daily than 5,000 followers who seem to ignore everything I say. It’s the networking aspect of Twitter that attracts me.

Should Your Social Networking Activities be a Lie?

So that brings up the more serious ramifications of my Twitter friend’s tweet: changing what he tweets to preserve follower count. Even though he reads radical atheist content and obviously feels strongly about it — strong enough to share it, anyway — he stopped sharing it because he doesn’t want to lose followers.

“…a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online…” are his exact words. But I’ll argue this: if your political or religious views are important to you, why should you hide them? They are part of your personal makeup — they’re what make you who you are. To pretend that they’re not is akin to lying about who you are.

To omit them from your social networking activities will prevent you from finding other people who share the same views you have. And isn’t that why we participate in social networks? To meet and interact with people who share similar views?

The Special Case of Bloggers

Bloggers, of course, face this dilemma in a much more magnified way. Our blog posts aren’t limited to 140 characters a pop. We can go on and on about any topic we like, linking to content, quoting content, opining on the values of that content. We can make complex arguments for or against anything we like. Or we can simply share a link and let our readers do their own homework, forming their own opinions about a topic without help from us.

Either way, the blog post is out there and it stays out there. It’s not 140 characters that flit through the Twitter timelines of the people who follow us, disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. It’s out there, archived, accessible, searchable. There are comments associated with it, RSS feeds that direct to it, other blogs (and even feed-scraped sploggs) that link to it.

Should bloggers be concerned about sharing their opinions on controversial topics such as politics and religion?

It all depends on what they’re trying to achieve with their blogs. If their blogs exist to voice opinions on these topics, being shy would defeat their purpose. If their blogs exist as a personal journal of what’s going on in their lives and minds (like mine does for me), hiding their thoughts about these things — especially when these things are important to them — would be akin to putting up a false front to their readers — and betraying themselves. But if their blogs are intended to showcase a product or service or way of life, adding their opinions on non-related controversial topics is probably not a good idea.

The Importance of Being True to Yourself

And then there are people like me: people who have non-mainstream opinions but, because of their work, should probably present a mainstream face to the public. I’m sure there are a lot of us out there, but it was only recently that I found someone with a situation so similar to mine that I took great comfort in his blog’s existence. (I’m referring to Ted Landau‘s Slanted Viewpoint.)

While I don’t consider my opinions extreme, I know they’re not mainstream. They are shared by quite a few people, but usually not the outspoken ones you see on television. (It’s ironic to me that the “conservatives” are the loudest, most outspoken Americans; what’s that about?) Still, when I write a blog post voicing my opinions about something like religion or politics, I get a lot of nasty, hateful feedback from readers who seem to have gone out of their way to visit my blog and blast me. The most obvious example, which amazes me to this day, is the outrage of “Christians” over my post, “The Bible in the Refrigerator.” These people got so abusive in comments that I had to shut the comments down. (And don’t bother entering a comment about that post here; it won’t appear.)

So what do I do? Betray myself by pretending not to be outraged by the stupidity and ignorance I see in today’s world — just to make the mainstream happy? Pretend that I’m not offended by having someone else’s religion thrust on me every day of my life? Pretend that I’m content with a political system rendered ineffective by partisanship bullshit?

Does the world really need yet another middle-of-the road blogger? I don’t think so.

But what’s more important is this: Do I pretend I’m someone I’m not just to maximize the appeal of my blog to readers? Do I sell myself out just to give all the “fans” of my books a warm and cuddly feeling about me?

The answer, of course, is no. Because just like Twitter follower count, the number of blog readers or subscribers is meaningless to me. What matters is the quality of the readers, not the quantity. I want my blog read by people who are smart, people who can think, people who can comment with their opinions — whether they agree or disagree — in a clear, unoffensive way that furthers the discussion and makes me — and other readers — think.

So I’ll put that question to everyone who participates in social networking: What’s more important, your beliefs or your follower count?

4 thoughts on “What’s More Important: Your Beliefs or Your Follower Count?

  1. My facebook and personal blog site are the online reflection of how I run my life in the day to day world. Just like everyone else. Some people like to share (or over share) a lot about their religious or non religious beliefs, political stances, personal relationships, etc. Some people practice moderation and diplomacy with their opinions, some don’t. People generally behave in the same way with their online presence as they would in “real life”. Sometimes this can conflict with business or professional goals, if you are looking to build a generic across-the-board following.

  2. This is a topic I have been meaning to blog about for a while – I tend to have an idea for a blog post and leave it as a draft until I get time to finish it properly.

    Its a difficult challenge managing your “identity” online, because as with real life you can’t please all the people, all the time. However in real life you say different things to different groups of people.

    Religion is always a contentious and heartfelt issue, and proves my point. One of my closest friends is a huge atheist – I quite often have sport with him about religion; but I have another friend who is a very devout Christian and so I am tone down my conversations with her (although actually she is very tolerant and will explain why she believes very eloquently).

    Online though, you can’t do this. Everything you say can be read by anyone and taken without the context it would be said in real life. So yes, I moderate some of what I post; but not a lot – being true to your own beliefs is important. It just happens one of my beliefs is the right to free speech and belief without overt ridicule!

  3. What a great post. I don’t twitter at all, have so little time to follow all the great blogs with authors with views close to mine, or if not at least well articulated, that I can’t even begin to think of following 100 persons on twitter! (Much of my free time is spent on another passion: reading) How work gets in the way!

    Public forums like this one are so great and valuable in that it allows people with certain interests and passions to connect, connect world wide and develop and re-examine viewpoints and beliefs. It is really heartening to me to realize that there are many people who think like me, because as mentioned: the conservative, or rather the intolerant, voice is rather loud, offensive and downright people hating.

    As Craig responded recently, moderating to a certain extent what is posted sounds reasonable, as long as there is no fundamental change in position. For most of us it is quite possible that arguments supporting our viewpoints will continue to develop or even change as new knowledge is gained even if consideration of a reader’s sensibilities is not a major criteria.

    Generally whenever I get abused during a discussion on line, because I’ve voiced an opposing opinion, as in person to person, I completely lose interest in the other person’s views. Obviously there is no thinking supporting the view. I only have a couple of sleepless nights worrying that some people get to vote when perhaps they shouldn’t be even let near a polling booth.

  4. Thanks everyone for adding your comments. I love reading comments on this blog.

    Yvonne made an interesting comment:

    Generally whenever I get abused during a discussion on line, because I’ve voiced an opposing opinion, as in person to person, I completely lose interest in the other person’s views.

    A video many people can learn from has finally appeared on the Internet. It’s a presentation by Phil Plait at TAM8 this past July. He’s approaching the topic as a skeptic, but it could easily apply to anyone with strong opinions. What he’s saying is that we can’t convince people of our views if we insult them. I recommend it. It’s called “Don’t be a Dick,” but it isn’t as off-color as you might think from the title.

What do you think?