Last month James Governor of Redmonk had a blog post entitled Asymmetrical Follow: A Core Web 2.0 Pattern where he made the following claim
You’re sitting at the back of the room in a large auditorium. There is a guy up front, and he is having a conversation with the people in the front few rows. You can’t hear them quite so well, although it seems like you can tune into them if you listen carefully. But his voice is loud, clear and resonant. You have something to add to the conversation, and almost as soon as you think of it he looks right at you, and says thanks for the contribution… great idea. Then repeats it to the rest of the group.
That is Asymmetrical Follow.
When Twitter was first built it was intended for small groups of friends to communicate about going to the movies or the pub. It was never designed to cope with crazy popular people like Kevin Rose (@kevinrose 76,185 followers), Jason Calacanis (@jasoncalacanis 42,491), and Scobleizer (@scobleizer 41,916). Oh yeah, and some dude called BarackObama (@barackobama 141,862)
If you’re building a social network platform its critical that you consider the technical and social implications of Asymmetrical Follow. You may not expect it, but its part of the physics of social networks. Shirky wrote the book on this. Don’t expect a Gaussian distribution.
Asymmetric Follow is a core pattern for Web 2.0, in which a social network user can have many people following them without a need for reciprocity.
James Governor mixes up two things in his post which at first made it difficult to agree with its premise. The first thing he talks about is the specifics of the notion of a follower on Twitter where he focuses on the fact that someone may not follow you but you can follow them and get their attention by sending them an @reply which is then rebroadcast to their audience when they reply to your tweet. This particular feature is not a core design pattern of social networking sites (or Web 2.0 or whatever you want to call it).
The second point is that social networks have to deal with the nature of popularity in social circles as aptly described in Clay Shirky's essay Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality from 2003. In every social ecosystem, there will be people who are orders of magnitude more popular than others. Mike Arrington's blog is hundreds of times more popular than mine. My blog is hundreds of times more popular than my wife's. The adequately reflect this reality of social ecosystems, social networking software should scale up to being usable both by the super-popular and the long tail of unpopular users. Different social applications support this in different ways. Twitter supports this by making the act of showing interest in another user a one way relationship that doesn't have to reciprocated (i.e. a follower) and then not capping the amount of followers a user can have. Facebook supports this by creating special accounts for super-popular users called Facebook Pages which also have a one way relationship between the popular entity and its fans. Like Twitter, there is no cap on the number of fans a "Facebook Page" can have. Facebook differs from Twitter forcing super-popular users to have a different representation from regular users.
In general, I agree that being able to support the notion of super-popular users who have lots of fellow users who are their "fans" or "followers" is a key feature that every social software application should support natively. Applications that don't do this are artificially limiting their audience and penalizing their popular users.
Does that make it a core pattern for "Web 2.0"? I guess so.
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