Thursday, May 01, 2008

It's not how famous you are, it's how relevant

I feel a little like the limbless knight in the Holy Grail. I want to take the extremely tooled-up Clay Shirkey to task over his assertion that 'Fame Happens' (in his book Here Comes Everybody).

And if I pick fault with this particular idea it does not mean I think his whole house of cards comes tumbling down, far from it. I'm a big fan of the book and of Clay's thinking in general. I don't subscribe to the Cartesian notion that ideas are like apples in a barrel – one rotten one does not turn the rest to mush in my view.

Clay asserts that two things have to be in place for someone to become famous – “he has to have a minimum amount of attention, an audience in the thousands or more”.

Second “He has to be unable to reciprocate the attention he receives.”

Clay reasons that we have a cognitive limit on how much attention we can reciprocate.

But this is a tautology.

Fame – in the terms Clay defines it - is the product of mass media. It is the result of a broadcast world. You can't have fame without broadcast.

In fact, how many people are 'famous' from the pre mass media era? The odd philosopher, king, religious leader, scientist... the people we have heard of and who remain 'known' have been selected for us by who controlled the information. No one gets to do the controlling anymore. The Fame quotient ought to be really high for dead folks, since they can't respond at all!?

No matter how you acquire an audience, the moment you can define the people you are communicating with as an audience you have moved into broadcasting at them. Communities communicate. Audiences consume.

Someone who does not communicate with me becomes less relevant to me, someone who does becomes more important. If what they have to say becomes less relevant, the ties weaken. This seems to me true of human behaviour both on and off line.

The communities of purpose I describe and the communities of practice Clay describes himself make the point.

He says Oprah Winfrey can never respond to all the people who would covet her attention. But she only gets that attention because she's operating in a broadcast medium. I don't want to contact her. She is for the lowest common denominator, I have tools with which to find relevance. Why would I ask Oprah for help with network theory? She's not relevant. And to quote Morrissey, she says nothing to me about my life.

There is a very small subset of people and subjects for whom it would be relevant for Oprah to engage with in a group forming network world. (people trying to lose weight who share her lifestyle, outlook, genes even, for example...)

Relevance has always mattered.

I bumped into the German Chancellor once in a street in Hamburg. Didn't recognise him. The guy I was with did. He was blown away by this chance encounter with fame. But he was German. I was left pretty much underwhelmed (though a mass media kind of 'I ought to be impressed cos lots of other people regard him as famous, residual afterglow was there.)

And that's in the physical world.

In the digital world we can indulge our need for relevance completely. In the digital world a degree of fame is easier to come by for everyone. Something you do, say, think or can achieve is of primary relevance for someone else. The tools of the digital world will enable you to find one another.

Which brings us to Clay's second point – that fame requires an imbalance of attention. In twitter terms more people follow you than you follow. Each time you make an utterance more people hear than you are prepared to listen to in response. Which makes you a broadcaster.

Again, in this we find the idea that you have to be a broadcaster to be famous. That broadcasting is intrinsic to being 'famous' in Clay's terms.

This is a measure that defines that more people know you than you know.

Again, that is a restraint of the physical broadcast world and one that does not exist in the digital networked one.

Clay would say – but there are limits to how much knowing (reciprocating of attention) any human being can do.

There are, of course. But I don't think we've reached them – and using the tools we have available to us offers us the opportunity to experience attention as flow rather than directional arrows.

All the large mass niche communities that have exploded globally are communities, not gatherings of audiences. Within them are groups, groups for whom members are 'famous' to each other.

They are 'famous' to each other in my terms not because of an imbalance in attention but precisely because the relationship is closer to 1:1 – where conversations can happen. They are relevant for each other.

When someone gets out of balance (and starts broadcasting) their value in the network world diminishes.

There's one particular blogger I used to read who is very highly regarded but who never responds – to me at least.

Now his reasoning may be that my questions aren't relevant enough or I'm not relevant enough, so he selects to ignore.

And that's fine, he's likely to be in very regular conversation with many other bloggers and others who he has joined in a network of trust. And he's likely reached his cognitive limit.

My response is to visit his blog less often, to be less likely to consume his content. He is both less famous (as measured by everyone) AND less relevant (to me) as a result.

There are others who are using the tools of flow to extend that cognitive limit – I think of stowe boyd and Robert Scoble. Both have large numbers of 'followers' and could be regarded – at least in the niche of the social media blogosphere as 'famous' in Clay's terms.

But they aren't. They aren't because they respond, they engage in conversation with the nodes that join with them in networks. They treat themselves as part of a community, not a broadcaster into an audience. They make themselves continuously relevant to those for whom it matters.

This is a very different kind of fame and it is the one I am referring to when I talk about it being better to be famous for 15 people than for 15 minutes.

15000 any-old eyeballs, any-old where are of demonstrably less value than 15 people who, right now, want to help me make a difference because they share my purpose.

So Clay, stop being famous, for 15 minutes, and come and join this conversation?

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?