On my first day at South by Southwest, an annual geek conference dedicated to celebrating the brightest minds in emerging technology, I already felt like a speck of Internet dust because I only have 157 Twitter followers.
I took drastic measures and pulled out my iPhone for an old-fashioned phone call. My confidante was my former business partner Adam. I knew he would immediately understand. In that moment, I officially hated the Internets.
Just a day before, I was giddy about attending South by Southwest (SxSW) for the first time. Billed as the center of digital creativity, and not to be confused with the film or music festival that immediately follows it, "South by" attracts entrepreneurs, bloggers, developers, advertisers, and venture capitalists. By day, thousands of us roamed the Austin Convention Center to go to panels like "Mad Men on Twitter" (now even Peggy Olsen has a Twitter account), "Love in the Cloud: Online-Only Marriages," and "What Do I Do With Myself, Now that the Economy Has Collapsed?" At night, shoulder-to-shoulder parties raged.
As much as I wanted to have the random, stimulating conversations in the hallway that everyone says defines the event, something felt very wrong. In fact, my first tweet was: "I feel contrarian urge coming on in first day of #sxsw never seen more distracted sea of people."
SxSW felt like a flashback to high school, but all the kids are former debate and math team nerds. Summoning all their repressed teenage angst, my fellow conference participants seemed to be taking a new shot at the yearbook superlatives. I quickly realized I was living in the vortex of a geek popularity contest.
The Pressure to Tweet
The more than 5,000 people who attend SxSW interactive are a future-looking crowd. Think of them as a subculture that may forecast the culture at large.
SxSW's early adopters sometimes go nuts for Internet services that go nowhere, but they have been spot on with Twitter. The broadcast-your-brain service launched two years ago at SxSW and geeks went wild for it. Now John McCain, Ashton Kutcher and P Diddy love it too. The rules of fame are being rewritten. Andy Warhol would be pleased. Forget fifteen minutes of fame, now you can create a cult of yourself on Twitter and be in constant conversation with every fan.
SxSW was supposed to be about community. A full-page house ad in the conference schedule instructed people to "Put away your laptop and talk to your neighbor!" And yet, I had never seen more people tuning each other out.
At any given time, at least 50% of the audience in any panel had their laptops open so they could tweet their reactions to "the cloud," aka Twitter. The norm was to type, text, and read while people were giving their presentations. A twenty-something man who works at cars.com in Chicago confessed, "I am doing things here that I would consider so rude if I were at home or at work."
At a normal conference, you have to impress dozens of strangers in "meatspace" (geeks' word for the physical world). But at SxSW, you also have to make an impression on Twitter, and prolifically. During those five days in Austin, I felt like I was living in on another planet where the pressure to tweet was constant!
People gain followers by broadcasting every observation. The more tweets you post, the more likely people might be to see them, and thus, to follow you. The more followers you have, the more status you gain. Thus it is important to pump out as many tweets as possible. "I'm at the party." "Now I'm two steps to the right." "Now I'm too steps to the left." "Great beer!"
How frequently did SxSW's most prolific tweeters tweet? Tara Hunt, a marketing expert who writes about how companies can benefit by getting involved with their customer communities through social media, spent three years accruing 25,000+ followers. She tweeted 66 times in a 24-hour period on March 14, day two of SxSW. Assuming six hours of sleep, that's about 3.67 every hour, or once every 16 minutes.
Internet marketing guru Guy Kawasaki manages alltop.com, "an Internet magazine rack." He topped Tara by tweeting 95 times on March 15, but half of his tweets may have been "ghost-tweeted" by paid staff. He says he writes all his own personal replies.
On my most prolific day, March 16, I tweeted seven times. I wrote these things not so much out of a desire to communicate, but to be discovered by the small gods of SXSW. I am not proud of this. In fact, I am embarrassed to have been caught up in the avalanche of nothingness. I am just honest about being swept up in the vibe.
And to Power-Tweet
But just tweeting prolifically isn't enough. You really need to power-tweet.
Imagine two celebs on the red carpet. Brangelina, for example, shines brighter than Jennifer Aniston alone. Using Twitter, you can combine (or align with) celebrities, forming your own power-couple.
Dave Morin, a Senior Platform Manager at Facebook, has more than 300,000 followers. On his way out of SxSW, he power-tweeted: "In a cab between the two women building the next Oprah. @juliaallison and @meghanasha!" Julia and Meghan are founders of nonsociety.com, a "lifecasting 'magazine' geared towards today's savvy young women." They are definitely micro-celebs with the mostly male crowd at SxSW.
Morin also power-tweeted, "Just had an EPIC conversation with @Garyvee." Gary Vaynerchuk is another micro-celeb unknown outside the Twitter bubble. A Belarusian-born wine retailer and blogger from New Jersey with a rabid Twitter fan base, Vaynerchuk recently signed a seven-figure, ten-book deal with Harper Studio. The topic will be self-help business advice. He's a wine blogger, but his claim to micro-fame seems to be his success at becoming micro-famous. One has to wonder, will these be micro-books?
My only real micro-celebrity friend is Penelope Trunk, a career-advice blogger who has 10,000 followers. Much like a Jessica Simpson spotting at LAX, the Twitterazzi tweeted when she arrived at the airport. We had coffee during the conference, and it felt like one of the only focused conversations that lasted more than 30 minutes and wasn't punctuated with a rapid exchange of business cards. She told me, "I confess that I am getting extremely anxious that I am not getting Twitter followers fast enough. I feel like a 20-year- old."
Who's keeping track? Wefollow.com, a site created by Kevin Rose, the founder of digg.com, launched at SxSW. Wefollow ranks people with the top follower count in the categories of celebrity, actor, music, and of course, blogger, social media, and tech. Rose has 428,268 followers and Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and Twitter has 437,273. For now, they are not far behind Barack Obama (581,185) and Britney Spears (688,797). To be sure, Britney Spears sells more copies of USWeekly than Kevin Rose. But still, a cult of 400,000 is not to be lightly dismissed.
Micro-revenue for Micro-celebrities?
What's driving the followers arms race? Just think: Even MySpace celebrity-turned-model-turned-friend-of-Lindsay-Lohan Cory Kennedy only had 20,000 friends. The longer I spent inside this (questionably) futuristic social media bubble, the more I thought the popularity anxieties were not just repressed high school angst. They're also economic, perfectly coinciding with our melting economy. The median age of a Twitter user is 31. Most of these aspiring micro-celebrities are established in their careers.
On my last day at SxSW, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail, gave a keynote that started to put the follower madness into context. His new book Free will come out in July (will it also be free?) and has a thesis that couldn't be more on point for people who work in the Internet. Anderson argues that consumers will perceive anything delivered via the Internet as free. This presents a thorny problem for the creators of software, music, and all forms of content. Price to consumer: zero. Price to create is obviously not zero. What's the solution?
Micro-celebrity! Chris gave this advice to content creators: "Create microcelebrity and then monetize it. . . Each one of us has to figure out our own way to convert our reputation into money." His sole example: a Cantonese pop singer who accepted piracy of her music but made money through paid engagements, store openings, and product endorsement.
According to Anderson, we must all suck people in as our followers, and then, somehow convert them into monetization opportunities: endorsements, PR, consulting, paid engagements, and better-paying jobs. The underlying assumption is that everyone would want to create micro-celebrity. There's no world of just writing, creating film or art, or paid-for software, anymore. But wait, aren't most writers naturally introspective, MFAs, not MBAs?
Will micro-celebrity deliver more than micro-revenue? Maybe the formula works for Chris, Malcolm Gladwell, and other business authors who command large speaking fees for speaking to business audiences.
But for most this advice seems preposterous. It leads to a world much like Hollywood: a few well-paid actors and actresses, an army of wait staff futilely chasing a dream. Even if everyone who cultivates their "micro-celebrity" identifies an audience that would be valuable to paying advertisers or sponsors, it's a simple problem of supply and demand. There will be too many micro-celebrities to generate anything more than nano-revenue.
Anderson explained to me later in an email dialogue that his definition of "content creator" includes engineers who contribute to bulletin boards. The world of Internet content is flat to him--content is anything that consumes our attention, whether it's a movie review on the New York Times or a tweet from Major Nelson, the director of programming for the Xbox.
Sure, if you are a programmer, creating a cult around yourself on Twitter may help you get better jobs. But in this model, traditional "content creators" (who want to be paid for their content) may be out of luck. According to Anderson, "the good ones will find a way to prosper and society will evolve, regardless. It's just change." The good ones, presumably, will have an army of followers.
Until Twitter Collapses Into a Meta Black Hole
If there was one "takeaway" from this SxSW, it was that I'm going to have to jump into the popularity races myself.
We live in an age of popularity surveillance now. Simon & Schuster, the publisher of one of my books just started following me. Until the Twitter fad crashes and burns (my friend Jeff tells me on IM, "I am waiting for Twitter to collapse into a giant meta-black hole with everyone retweeting everyone else"), I predict book advances will be determined in part by an author's follower count. Penelope told me she felt the same way after last year's SxSW. Must. Get. On. Twitter. And. Attract. Thousands. Of. Strangers.
Here's where my worrying brain starts to spiral. If SxSW represents the future, does that mean that we'll all become aspiring micro-celebrities in our own industries? Will obsessive self-promotion becomes the new normal?
After a few days at home, I started to worry less and see this crowd for who they were: entrepreneurs who had paid upwards of $2,000 to attend a conference and needed to get their money's worth. Most of us are not trying to build Internet companies. We probably won't approach life with the same self-promotional fervor.
Immediately after SxSW, I couldn't have been more relieved to return to San Francisco.
It's ironic, because I normally think of San Francisco as being a haven of weirdos. But after five days in the Austin Convention Center, my non-Internet friends, writers, artists, and unmarried, people I usually lovingly consider odd compared to most Americans, seemed so refreshingly normal. They are capable of carrying on an "epic" conversation without bragging that they are having an "epic" conversation.
Changing planes in Dallas, I tapped out a Facebook status update: "on my way back to SF after sxsw, eager to be around normal people, ie, non-aspiring micro-celebrities." The first comment in response was from an old work friend. Her response reassured me and made me smile. I was returning to the real world. "What's sxsw?" she asked.
Sasha Cagen is building the next Oprah at Quirkyalone and To-Do List. Follow her at twitter.com/sashacagen.