Clive Thompson in Praise of Online Obscurity
Then, in 2007, [Maureen Evans] began a nifty project: tweeting recipes, each condensed to 140 characters. She soon amassed 3,000 followers, but her online life still felt like a small town: Among the regulars, people knew each other and enjoyed conversing. But as her audience grew and grew, eventually cracking 13,000, the sense of community evaporated. People stopped talking to one another or even talking to her. “It became dead silence,” she marvels.
Why? Because socializing doesn’t scale. Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” Evans says. So the conversation stops. Evans isn’t alone. I’ve heard this story again and again from those who’ve risen into the lower ranks of microfame. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
The lesson? There’s value in obscurity.
After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away from the spotlight — in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel.)