The results of Mike Butcher's 'who will be BBC FM&T king' poll on TechCrunch UK got me thinking about the extent to which popularity dominates behaviours around social media online, for, as Jemima Kiss intimates on the Guardian's digital content blog, the final list is more of a reflection of the relative online profile/popularity of people publicly associated with BBC Future Media, than an assessment of their suitability for the job in question. Which is fine and probably what you'd expect from a poll on a tech blog such as TechCrunch.
What's interesting to me though is how this overt popularity contest is an example of a much wider trend within online social media. Let's start with Facebook, where the number of 'friends' you have is not without consequence. As Robert Scoble pointed out at the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, this is partially due to the fact that the quality of your experience on social media sites is, up to a point, determined by how many 'friends' you have (i.e. no friends and it's not a whole lot of fun).
However, at least for some users, the number of 'friends' they have has acquired a far greater importance as a signifier of their status or popularity. When Facebook was first taking off in the UK, I remember seeing a number of status updates (perhaps a telling phrase?) trumpeting the passing of a major friend milestone or bemoaning their inadequate friend count (although researchers were predictably swift to ascertain that "while people perceive someone who has a high number of friends as popular, attractive and self-confident, people who accumulate 'too many' friends (about 800 or more) are seen as insecure" (see Guardian article).
Of course, it's not just about raw numbers. The roll out of Facebook's developer platform enabled third-party developers to tap into the long-tail of people's popularity neuroses. It's no accident that amongst the most popular Facebook apps are Top Friends, Compare Me, Circle of Friends, Friends for Sale, Hotness and Best Friends. Compare Me is a particularly fine example, sending you regular email updates to inform you that you've just jumped two places in the sexiness rankings but dropped one against funniness or appending a list of your four most kissable friends...
Whilst the drive for popularity might be most obviously manifest in thoroughbred social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, it is also present, albeit less conspicuously, in sites where social objects (e.g. videos, photos, bookmarks) are nominally the focus. Similarly, the prominence given to 'number of followers' (interesting terminology again) in Twitter is instructive, as is the existence of services such as TwitDir and Andrew Baron's recent (abortive) attempt to auction his Twitter account (with followers, naturally).
Whilst on one level, social media's obsession with popularity is just a mirroring of the basic human dynamics at work in any playground or office, there's something about the measurability of online popularity which is particularly seductive. Whilst the social pecking order of a real-world group may be well understood, it is rarely made explicit, unlike online communities where public rankings are a stock in trade. The same harsh assessments of people's desirability have been silently taking place in bars and nightclubs for years but without the results then being posted up on the wall, as they are with online stalwart Hot or Not and its legion of imitators.
The trend certainly looks set to continue, not only because it taps into a very basic but powerful element of human psychology (ego!) but also because it adds a competitive and potentially addictive element to sites which consequently increases their stickiness and grows advertising revenue. Everyone's a winner! (except, that is, for the losers...) (Ok, I'm just bitter I didn't appear on the TechCrunch list ;-)
Photo: Shahid Sarker. Used under licence