I wasn’t sure how it would feel to have 2,000 followers on Twitter, but I expected to feel something. When it finally happened, I felt nothing. I was surprised by this — when accounts hit a milestone like that, they often share a celebratory tweet (or even use it as cause to do an AMA.) I thought I’d feel the same way, but I didn’t feel motivated to do any of those things. It felt utterly insignificant.
There’s a strange emptiness in reaching a milestone you expected to matter, only to find that it doesn’t. It gave me pause. I slowed my pace in the marathon, and wondered why the hell I’m still running.
I know there’s a reason I was doing this — but it was no longer clear to me. Maybe the prolonged brain fog of a life in lockdown has blurred my vision. Perhaps my motivations have changed. Either way, I needed a reason to stay in the race. The ambiguous hope of algorithmically-determined attention wasn’t enough. I wanted a stronger why.
I thought about the moments I enjoyed most on Twitter. What gave me joy?
I closed my eyes and imagined the meaning hidden within the metrics. Embedded within all those followers was a (much smaller) collection of wonderful human beings that I have tweeted with, conversed with, emailed with, hopped on video calls with, and in some cases gone on to hang out with in person. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of my best friends in real life are people I met on Twitter.
The clarity returned: It’s about the friends, of course! The act of building a following serves us best when used as a means to an end (e.g. making friends), rather than the end goal itself.
Remixed from an original illustration by Startup Illustrated.
We can’t escape the race, but perhaps we can run by our own rules. The way I want to run this race is to prioritize friends over followers.
You might be wondering: “Why does any of this matter? Either way, I’m building followers…”
Your intent matters because your intent is visible to others. How you think about growth will affect the kind of content you create and share, which will impact the kind of followers you get, and the friends you make from them.
The friends we attract will be determined by the signals we broadcast, and the vibe we curate. With every word, every tweet, and every essay, we send a signal to others about what matters to us, what’s meaningful to us, and how we’d like to connect. As @visakanv explains, “Every ‘utterance’ (status, tweet, whatever) is a bit of an invitation, a bit of a proposal.”
Choose your signals wisely.
Ultimately, we have to make trade-offs. If we optimize for friends, it will likely come at the cost of followers. The other day, I was tweeting a thread about the frustrations I feel playing the comparison game on social media. As much as I wanted to feel inspired when others shared their sales numbers and growth statistics, it often threw me into a comparison spiral. I spoke honestly about my struggles with it, and how I was working on it. Afterwards, I noticed I lost a bunch of followers, but also got this message from a new friend:
For me, gaining a new friend is more than worth the expense of losing followers. I’ll happily make that tradeoff, because I’m building followers in order to make friends. Keeping our intent in mind helps us interpret events with a sound mind (rather than simply being discouraged by seeing a metric go down.)
Once we focus our attention on building friendships, the question then becomes: How do we attract friends? What can we do to increase the chance that our interactions foster friendships, rather than just grow followers?
The short answer is vulnerability. When people see a consistent flavor of your authentic self, you gain their trust. They see you being vulnerable, and that makes them more comfortable doing the same. This is the spark needed to create deeper connections.
Michael Ashcroft speaks well to the power of letting others find us through our vulnerability (as well as the risk it brings):
In any situation there could be others who could become close friends. How? By being vulnerable and by going first. To be vulnerable is to show others the deeper parts of ourselves. We have no control over what happens next – that’s why it can be so scary. We can only hope that we won’t get hurt, but we might, and the more we do it, the more likely we are to get hurt. But there’s no other way to turn that vicious circle into a virtuous one.
If we seek the rewards of friendship, we must risk the pain of rejection.
It’s no wonder then, that so many don’t bother. It’s in our nature to avoid pain. We’d rather not play the game at all. But the reality is that we cannot avoid pain — the idea that we can escape pain is only an illusion. The psychologist Joseph Adler said, “To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone.”
A life alone may be free of pain from others, but it is empty of life’s greatest gift: the unique joy of relationships. The contagious laughter of friends, the creative spark of collaboration, the natural comfort of human connection.
Life is about the friends we make along the way.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." —The Little Prince