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We Aim To Please

December 7th, 2009

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.

9 Responses to “We Aim To Please”

  1. markzero Says:

    There’s at least a couple other sites that do similar tracking, if you’re still into getting some fast one-liners:
    Favotter: http://favotter.matope.com/en/
    Favstar: http://favstar.fm/

    BTW, I think RTs are coming to replace favorites. I know I care more when I see people retweeting junk of mine, and I RT others more often than I used to before it was changed. I’ve also discovered that, over the long term, most people I’ve followed for funny one-liners usually aren’t great at dialogue, and now they’re being moved to my RSS reader instead. Which means they’d get less feedback anyway, I guess. (But if they won’t reply, they’re not listening anyway)

  2. Wil Shipley Says:

    Also, if someone links to your blog on their blog, that makes you feel good.

    -W

  3. aah Says:

    I would think that the human being that is genetically wired to please is likely to have a higher chance of survival in cases where the community has to take cruel decisions (a few hundred thousand years ago, naturally :) – and it would surprise me if this hasn’t been analyzed from an evolutionary point of view.

  4. Justin Says:

    It *IS* an interesting phenomenon… and I thought a very interesting series of questions that you posed.

    I’ll dive in here: You posted this. I’ve never met you, but I responded to what you were saying. Maybe a third person will pick up the thread? Ripples go out…. ripples return. Who knows if any of it really “matters”, but it certainly could! And think — none of this would have happened if you hadn’t posted. ( ‘Atta boy!’, by the way. ;) )

    Of course in the final analysis, every medium or community is a temporary thing…. and, when viewed through that lens, it’s hard to take any of it too seriously. But that doesn’t mean that it’s just “fast food” or pointless gratification — just part of a well-balanced ego diet.

    As you were getting at, relying upon the approval of strangers alone for your sense of worth is probably not going to be the most successful life strategy. And yet, I think it’s important to leave yourself open to it to some degree. Strangers tell us things our closest friends might feel reluctant to. Strangers notice those good qualities in us that our close friends may take for granted over time. A stranger who, while passing by you, can bring a smile to your face or maybe a slightly different way to look at something… well, in my mind, this is no small achievement.

    Sure — it’s different than the deep feeling that comes from earning the respect of people that you know and admire. Lasting friendships and fleeting moments of camaraderie aren’t *equally* valuable, but maybe they’re equally *valuable*.

    Since it’s December, I’ll try to work in a “George Bailey” reference as well (if your comment-reading credulity will allow it!) In my 2009 remake entitled “It’s a Delicious Life”, Wil Shipley’s 310.9 MB of digital assets certainly aren’t the sole measure of his influence — the Tweets count as well. The forum posts where he demonstrates the way he chooses to do business while being true to himself? Add it to the pile. Twitter postings, comments on a blog, and even exceptionally well-written (and affordable!) apps — detritus in the “big picture” scheme of things, but still part of the residue our lives leave on the world. Blog links are nice but, regardless of how many he gets, Wil’s still had a Wonderful Life, you know?

    I realize, however, that the world is not made up solely of “lasting friendships and camaraderie”. Recently, someone sent me a link to a site called “lamebook”: After viewing a few pages, I felt like leaving a scrawled note, a la Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now!” imploring someone to call in an airstrike on my position. This is also the world we live in. People are often dumb…. or worse. Lots of noise gets through while we each listen for our own signal. The static is annoying, but it’s part of the deal.

    As both the Favrd shutdown and my tenuous Capra metaphor suggest, the ripples we send out in this life are probably beyond our personal control or estimation. I fully support Dean Allen deciding to turn off his radio when he didn’t like what he was hearing. I also support his right to smash his radio, if that’s what he chooses to do with it. I even think that he is right that it’s a “…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.”

    But it leaves me with this question — Can you actually measure it accurately *without it* either?

  5. DDA Says:

    How many people are buying my app/t-shirt/CD/craft?
    Who left positive feedback on eBay/Amazon/iTunes?

    These might well relate to your income and ability to feed your family than whether you *matter* to strangers.

    I also think that if one doesn’t at least take into account how one is viewed by society (in general or in particular), it can also be bad. Getting all your approval online from strangers is bad but so is ignoring the “reality check” that others can give you.

  6. Peter Bierman Says:

    It’s fascinating to me (and most engineer-types) to dissect what motivates people (particularly ourselves). Feeling like we matter is perhaps one of the strongest motivating forces. Of course, then we feel embarrassed about it. I was in a situation for a while without much external motivation, and I was really struggling with self-motivation. On a lark, I bought a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” a book everyone has heard of, but surprisingly few have read. The first thing that surprised me was that it was written in 1936! The second thing that surprised me was how sincere the book is about its topic. Online reviews pushed me past my assumption that this was self-help fluff and got me to buy it, but reading it blew me away with the engineer-like approach to dissecting issues like motivation and influence. Everyone should read this book. For us introverts working on systems to socially connect people, it’s practically an instruction manual. :-)

  7. Rory Marinich Says:

    The manner in which we receive this feedback is important also. There’s a difference between seeing @replies or web hits and seeing something like Favrd, in which there’s a hierarchy. I saw one tweet re: this affair that said: “The cool kids’ table has just been closed.” I’m not a huge Twitter user, so I didn’t follow Favrd that closely, but what may have seemed like a friendly, witty community to those involved certainly came across as a bit clique-y to those people with only a passing interest.

    I’m too young to know Dean Allen as well as the people whose links led me to Dean Allen, but from what I’ve read he’s got an intimidating talent. Certainly he’s one of the rare Internet Writers whose style’s got “How did he wring that out?” moments. Perhaps this is wrong, but because of that I feel a need to pay attention to his words more than to those of any of the fellows disagreeing with him — particularly because the context of this shutting down is so unusual, and because his motivation is so unexpected.

    I know that every time I’ve entered a competition or even a simple ranking with anybody over anything it’s instantly sparked negative emotions toward that person. The more popular that competition becomes, the harsher my feelings get. And Favrd was a favorite, both for the elite design crowd you fit into, and for the younger semihipster subset. So I have no hard time believing Dean on this one.

    I think that what he did was honorable. He knows the people of Favrd better than any of us did. If he says there was upfuckery, he’s probably right — and he’s got no reason to lie.

  8. Nick Caldwell Says:

    Dean Allen, by the way, is also the founding father of Textile, the human markup language, Textdrive, the dared-to-be-different webhost subsumed by Joyent, and last but not least, Textpattern, blogging tool of discerning Internet citizens everywhere.

  9. Gaston Says:

    The need for approval. As a Centering Prayer practitioner —kinda like Christian meditation— we learn that the desire for approval motivates a lot of what we do in life.

    I can absolutely identify with what you’ve written. The need for the internet fix is always there, waiting for us, one “New Tab” away. It’s that easy.

    Now learning the art of not being motivated by the need for approval is a lifelong job. But hey, it’s a great job to work at.

    Now I suck at it… for now I’m almost pleased that (in my imagination) this post itself will be pleasing to you and you will agree with me.

    : )

    And yes, though it sounds pathetic, seeing that it’s a vicious circle that never ends is part of the cure.

    “Hi, my name is Gaston and I’m addicted to praise.”

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