Building Our Heroes

May 5th, 2008 | Categories: blogs, marketing, networks, off topic, social media, strategy, web issues

The following guest post was written by social media expert and blogger Steve Spalding. He can be found on the web at How To Split An Atom or History of Blogging.

The great thing about family is that you can always count on them.

They’re there for you when times are hard, when the chips are down, when you need support. Kind of like Social Media.

You can also count on them to fight, feud and frustrate you to no end. To be the thorn that your side has always been missing. Kind of like Social Media.

Perennially, those who take the time to analyze this media that we call Social come back to the question, “How do top bloggers, mavens and pundits remain on top?” There are several answers to this question worth considering.

Excellent content is a part of it, especially in the beginning — if the content wasn’t good, no one would read it in the first place. Charisma is also a huge factor — if you can’t communicate effectively you might as well go home. Let’s not forget hard work. It takes time and patience to manage the dozens of conversations and thousands of pages of emails that a Scoble or an Arrington has to on a daily basis.

There is another piece of the puzzle, however — a piece that is purely a family affair.

If you scan the pages of Techmeme or listen in on the Twitter stream you will understand what I am talking about. While the top voices in Social Media do compete with one another to some extent, what makes them different from traditional media brands is that they have learned the power of network effects. They link to each other, comment on each other’s posts and even when they don’t agree they do their parts in cross-promoting each other’s work.

There are several extremely practical reasons why these ad hoc families exist.

The first is that it’s just easier. It’s impossible to keep up with the thousands upon thousands of blogs covering any particular vertical. Why should you waste time separating the grains of wheat from the piles of chaff when you can link to your friends, knowing for a fact that they have high quality content? Even more compelling is that top publishers typically drive a lot of traffic, if you link out chances are good that someone will return the favor. It’s a very low cost way to increase your exposure in the long term. Finally, working together is an excellent way to build a network of influencers. The better off your friends are, the more influence you have through them. Everyone wants to have powerful friends, if the cost of helping to create them is low — why not?

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this. No matter where you sit in the Social Media hierarchy, you probably do the same thing. It’s a part of human nature to form ad hoc networks around shared interests.

What’s particularly interesting is the effect this has on the way that we perceive news. Call it the Techmeme Effect. It’s the process by which ideas spring fully formed from the blogs of top publishers and suddenly become news as they are commented on and echoed by other key influencers. Before you know it, something that might have seemed trivial when it was published, suddenly holds us all captive as the meme spreads like a disease through the rank and file members of the blogosphere. What you have is an engine that creates news — an engine that determines what we use, what becomes popular and what trends are in vogue.

In essence, top publishers have found a way to magnify their own celebrity.

Where does that leave the rest of us? That, my friends, is the open question. Despite our calls for democratization of media, most of us really want to have people we can look up to. We want to have Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters to tell us what we should be concerned about. If these figures aren’t available, we want to create them for ourselves.

On the flip side, if there is anything we want more than to create heroes, it’s to envy them. This goes a long way to explain why so much time is spent tearing apart the idols that we worked so hard to put in place.

So what do you think? When do we become so good at magnifying our celebrity and growing our properties that we become indistinguishable from big media brands. More important, at what point do we stop caring?

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