Seeing Numbers Instead of People
It happens in art and in science. I’ve seen the market flatten and demolish educational best practice. Exceptional music has been remixed into muzak. Groundbreaking movies have been merchandised into plastic toys.
Commercial culture depends on the theft of intellectual property for its livelihood. Mass marketers steal ideas from visionaries, alter them slightly if at all, then reissue them to the public as new products. In the process what was once insurgent becomes commodity, and what was once the shock of the new becomes the shlock of the novel. Invariably, early expressions of sub- or alternative cultures are the most fertile sampling grounds, as their publications or zines are the first to be pilfered. Invariably, pioneers of radical form become wellsprings for appropriation. Rebellion of any kind breeds followers, and many followers become a demographic.
Underground Mainstream [emphasis mine]
Any idea, philosophy, or culture that gathers a large enough number of followers has the potential to become a demographic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Identifying a demographic can be a good thing. When blogging moms became a demographic, their voices were elevated, strenthened, more respected. When they formed communities and networks — BlogHer, Sparkplugging, and Mom Central, they became visible, listened to, reachable. It’s a benefit to consumer moms everywhere. Products offered will serve moms better and moms in customer outreach will be portrayed more accurately.
While awareness and understanding of the influence and collective wisdom of group can be a good thing, sheer aggregation of a group opinion is not conversation or even effective communication. Individuals still matter. Not every mom wants the same things. Geekmommy doesn’t write a blog about her kids.
How Keep Your Followers from Becoming a Demographic
Once we pass some number of followers — Dunbar says it’s 150 — it’s hard to know every invididual in a group personally. Howdo we keep the conversation personal and valuable without flattening it to numbers and global traits of people we hardly know?
The question has been whether the conversation is scalable. It seems it can be. But as Amber Nashlund says, “It’s not a plugin, people … Itâs a serious approach to business communications and customer service and if youâre to succeed with it, you had better take it that seriously from the outset. You are making a commitment.”
We can do what great communicators and community builders have always done. Here are some ways to keep sight of the people who are following you.
- Listen individually. Pay attention to people as they speak. Listen for the differences in how they say things. How they react to the same situations.
- Before you answer someone new, take a peek at his or her profile. Visit a blog. Read a blog post. Know something about the person you’ll be talking with.
- Ask intriguing questions that invite individual opinions. Encourage people to elaborate and to ask questions.
- Reach out to folks who don’t talk much and always answer the new person who makes a comment.
- Get the whole community talking to each other.
- Set aside time to talk to new people. Make a special point to invite them to participate in the conversation.
- Be interested in every person’s experience. Ask for details.
Thinking demographics reduces people to numbers and flattens our understanding of why they do things. It washes out the rich, diversity and individual details. When we get into “demographic think,” we can lose sight that every person brings unique wisdom, experience, and history to make decisions based on their own criteria. Know the demographics, but talk to the individuals.
Have you felt like you were a number — not a person — recently?
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz!!