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Think you’re too smart to fall for a Ponzi scheme? Better check your Twitter account first.

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If you need a refresher, a Ponzi scheme, according to Wikipedia, is “a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors out of the money paid by subsequent investors rather that from profit. It “usually offers abnormally high short-term returns in order to entice new investors”.

Most of us think we’re too smart to fall for a monetary Ponzi scheme – but how about an “Attention Ponzi scheme”? Daniel Tunkelang, blogger of The Noisy Channel, recently blogged about the validity of the connections people are making on social networking sites. A few months ago he felt that

“connections in Twitter reflect real value. They correspond to investments of attention. Someone with many followers is much like an author with many readers”.

Upon further reflection, and after seeing that someone like Barack Obama follows over 164,000 people (can he really be paying attention and “following” that many people?) he now thinks he was “naïve” to have that view. He wonders why anyone would follow so many and concludes that:

“the obvious reason is the expectation of reciprocity: following someone often leads to their following back. And many people want to have more followers, possibly as a status symbol, but perhaps out of a sincere desire to exert greater influence. But if following someone doesn’t actually correspond to an investment of attention, then these efforts are a complete waste of time, the attention economy equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.”

Tunkelang does see the value in the connections formed on Twitter and other social networks – he’s just making the point that it would be nice to see people using social networks to make true connections. Something to think about the next time you choose to “follow” someone. And while you’re pondering that, think about this too: how many “friends” do you have listed on your Facebook page?

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