Yesterday Favrd, a site that monitored the number of favorite stars a particular Twitter update has received, was suddenly shut down.
Twitter erupted with reaction, much of which was more earnest and emotional than I expected. I had learned about Favrd and used it myself from time to time, but I assumed it was one of those sites that you should feel slightly embarrassed about loading. Or at the very least, you should be ashamed if you were caught trying to get your own tweets to be featured.
But Dean Allen, who created the site, is apparently some massively famous, well-loved internet superstar. I had never heard of him, even though many bloggers whose opinions I respect obviously had. Disorder is good for a system, so I guess it was my healthy function to be ignorant of this man so that I could experience the curious emotion of respecting him not for what he built, but for why he dismantled it.
Mr. Allen’s goodbye message, which now occupies the entire content of the site, was matter-of-fact and sincere, but its declaratory tone gave it a tinge of self-aggrandizement. To learn some of the really interesting rationale behind this fascinating end, you need to visit the comments section of Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog (thanks, Gruber), where Mr. Allen responds to Jeffrey’s criticism of the abrupt shutdown:
“I’ve spent the past year or so reading and writing and doing my level best to chip away at 40 years of belief in the logical fallacy that one’s identity meaning – self-worth, self-image, whatever you want to call it – can accurately be measured in the thoughts of others.”
Many folks use the internet as a valuable tool for research and connectedness, but also as a dubious source for ego-validation. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. How many of the following questions do you care to know the answer to?
- How many people are following me on Twitter
- How many hits on my home page?
- Has any high-profile blogger linked to me recently?
- How many people are @responding to my tweets?
- How many comments on my latest blog post?
- How early does my name show up in a Google search?
- How many people are buying my app/t-shirt/CD/craft?
- Who left positive feedback on eBay/Amazon/iTunes?
If you’re interested in the answers to these questions, it’s probably because you are concerned on some level about whether you matter or not. But more specifically, when it comes to the internet and other people you may reach by way of it, all these questions boil down to whether you have pleased anybody lately.
I relate strongly to this urge, because I find most of my time at the computer ultimately boils down to striving to get another “fix” of pleasure acknowledgment. When I’m working on my apps, I’m hoping the features I add will move somebody to send positive feedback, or to buy the software. When I’m writing on Twitter, it feels great to have people declare their enthusiasm for something I’ve said. And yes, when I’m writing on this blog, it’s ultimately because I hope what I’ve shared will resonate with other people, and some percentage of those readers will share their satisfaction with me.
What can I say? I aim to please. And I think this is a pretty common “problem.” It’s not exactly humanity’s worst defect. The expectation that our help and amusement be acknowledged has probably fueled a lot of important help and amusement. While a few saints work tirelessly and without need of emotional coddling, the rest of us always benefit from a pat on the head and an “atta boy”.
Sites like Favrd, and even Twitter itself, demonstrate how the internet has facilitated an ever-increasing diversity of positive feedback. A witty remark to an appreciative cluster of people at a party was once chalked up as a major win, but nowadays you might find yourself recognizing the wasted potential of that line, and quickly cc’ing it to Twitter. Then what? If 10 people favorite it, you’re a rock star. Until 10 people favoriting you is an everyday occurrence, then it takes 100 to move the meter. When does it end?
While the desire for praise and acknowledgement that we do matter is a healthy instinct that motivates us to do life-affirming things, I believe it can be fed inappropriately. Compare this need with hunger, which can be sated easily at first, but which tends to become harder to satisfy as your meals become larger, richer, and less complex.
It’s become relatively easy to find praise on the internet. A quip on Twitter yields a simple reply of “Hilarious!” from somebody you’ve never met. Not the most illustrious validation you’ve ever received, but it will get you through the hour. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re feeding your ego, it might develop health problems. Adulation by way of Twitter replies, favorite counts, blog comments, etc., are all fast food gratification. They are invaluable when you’re stuck in a lonely place and are desperate for a boost, but if it’s all you consume day in and day out, you’re heading for an epic fall.