Why Online Enemies Are More Powerful Than Friends

by Brett Borders on June 15, 2009

Social media is a popularity contest. Although not everyone keeps score, there is a distinctly competitive element where people race to build up the most fans, as quickly as possible. Having a large quantity of fans can help you be successful and spread your message. But the size of your online shadow — the (often invisible) enemies who dislike and distrust you — can have have an even bigger impact on your influence.

Ahmadinejad “won” the election, but lost the respect and cooperation of many Iranians and international leaders

If someone thinks you’re uninteresting, they might unfriend or mostly ignore you – but they usually won’t try to get in the way of your success. However, if you speak / act / brand yourself in a way that offends someone enough to put you on their “bad list” – they will oftentimes try to quietly “block” your message from getting out to others:

  • Won’t retweet, reciprocate, or recognize you – ever again.
  • Anonymously downvote your stories or comments.
  • Whisper or gossip negative stuff behind your back.
  • Will recommend “anyone but you” for jobs, speaking gigs, etc.

In more severe cases, people will aggressively try to sabotage your chances of success. They might publish negative or defamatory information about you. Or they’ll go behind the scenes and ask people to blacklist you, or file complaints with the authorities (search engines, site moderators, employers, event organizers). This can quickly erode at the thousands of hours of effort you’ve spent creating goodwill and a positive personal brand.

Active Resistance is the Ultimate Buzz Killer

Creating major buzz around your ideas requires an unbroken crescendo of community cooperation and enthusiasm. A just couple of grudging downvotes or influential people snubbing you early in the cycle can very easily keep your message from gaining momentum fast enough. This is why I believe your online enemies can be more powerful than your friends… your enemies are usually much more diligent about blocking the spread of your message than the average acquaintance is dedicated to spreading it for you. Here’s the rough equation in my head:

Detractors are much more likely to resist your efforts than casual friends are willing to support them.

I see the most successful and influential people online as those with a relatively large number of fans and relatively few harsh detractors. To me, an aggressive marketer with 10,000 superficial friends “on paper,” but only 50 who really trust and endorse them — and a shadow of 50,000 people who feel they’re a spammer, loudmouth or self-centered jerk… has far less true influence than a person with “only” 450 diehard fans who will do anything for them and 5 people who dislike them.

There’s always the temptation to cut corners or do things quickly to get ahead – things like auto DMs, mass e-mail lists, follow and unfollow games, copying people’s ideas or content, bragging, flambait & personal attacks… and they might work to some degree but they often have the side effect of hurting people’s feelings and respect for you. People’s respect is a vital and difficult-to-repair social media asset.

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  • http://twitter.com/casiveo casiveo

    Wow! If Hitler had twittered we’d all be speaking German!

  • http://ariherzog.com Ari Herzog

    Since this comment is being echoed around the web, who’s my enemy? Fess up. Call me curious. :)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Ari,

    I don’t know anyone who’s your enemy… I have a good impression of you… but I’ve noticed that people definitely do have lists of people they like and don’t like, often for very weird (subjective) and minor reasons. The social media scene has a bunch of big egos (hey, it’s hard to be social and successfully sell / brand yourself without one) that sometimes clash.

    sometimes there’s misunderstandings:
    I made a quick tweet the night Obama was elected and it was totally mis-interepreted to mean something 180-degree opposite of what I meant – and a guy really “took offense” despite my clarification and efforts at diplomacy.

    also if you downvote someones story or don’t support someone – they might hate ya. I ‘desphunn’ what I considered to be a worthless, non-internet-marketing related rant with offensive language in the title and body over a year ago and the author has never forgiven me since. Or if you don’t vote for someone or RT them sufficiently, some personalities will think “you’re against them.”

    For me.. sometimes just a personal brand or the way someone communicates can turn me against ‘em. There’s one or two Twitterati who I think are absurdly self-centered – pretty much everything they write or tweet is about themselves and how freaking awesome they are… and that was enough for me to decide “sorry, I don’t want to help spread this person’s megalomaniac message.”

  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuart Foster

    Agreed. Ask any power user of Digg. The will of the enemy/anti-power user voice is much smaller (and much more powerful).

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Stuart,

    Digg for sure… but it takes a lot of buries to stop a submission. Reddit is the worst because just a tiny handful of regulars can snuff a story when it’s new. If you get on the “bad list” of not having the right blend of reactionary, extremist atheist politics – like I did – the people on there will downvote ALL of your submissions to make sure it never gets off the new page. I really used to enjoy that site – but it’s turned into a game of trying to sneak in interesting links past the bigots, grudge holders and thought police.

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  • http://twitter.com/maayanroman maayanroman

    Right on as usual Brett. Not only are “haters” more likely to be active but I would put forward that a single negative comment or reaction is much more noticeable than a positive one. Furthermore, negative comments may even seem to have more credibility just by the fact that the person is disagreeing. For example, if I read product reviews and 1/5 are negative I’m going to pay closer attention and likely assume that the negative comments are more accurate (perhaps the positive people are not as thorough in their evaluations or are product stakeholders and are thus shills).

    In regards to the spammer types with 10k+ “followers” I think it becomes immediately obvious when there’s no substance. For example, people following over 100 and have matching following and follower numbers clearly are more interested in mass than relevance and I tend to avoid them. Although my follow count is under 100 and a good many are likely spammer types themselves, I’m proud that I got them through sharing information, not through spam-following.

  • http://twittercism.com Sheamus

    I’ve been thinking about this myself lately, certainly as my own clout is rising within Twitter (albeit still fairly slight), and I’m starting to pick up a few trolls. I agree with what you’re saying. That said, I also believe that any kind of success inevitably means you are going to attract your share of detractors and naysayers no matter how worthy or respectable you are to everybody else. It just comes with the turf. The old adage about ‘pleasing everybody all of the time’ is quite appropriate here – seeing this as an attainable goal is folly.

    Moreover, I would argue that polarising opinion is often a fairly good sign that you’re doing something right. Indeed, I think success can be achieved by:

    1. Being very useful to a large amount of people, but avoiding controversy and therefore having few serious critics (say, Problogger.net)

    or

    2. Being useful, but outspoken and controversial, and attracting many more rabid fans and detractors as a result (say, TechCrunch)

    I think it’s very hard to achieve any kind of success with *just* detractors, although again the observation that these individuals are often just as attentive and dedicated as your biggest fans is worth observing. But nobody can please everybody, and I would suggest that those that think they do need to improve their observational skills a little. :)

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