Reputation: kind of a big deal

December 14, 2010 holman

Reputation is an undervalued commodity.

It’s not a numbers game.

It really isn’t. Social Media Experts continually harp on numbers: how many hits, how many followers, how many retweets. Numbers transform to metrics because they are easily measured. But numbers are only important insomuch as they are a stepping stone to the true reach of your actions.

Reach is important. If you take an action — write a blog post, publish a photo, launch a website — you want your action to spread to as many people as possible. It’s human nature. It’s a slightly different concept than simple exposure; if reach is giving a presentation on stage, exposure is yelling in a noisy auditorium without a microphone. There’s a difference in engagement.

You want to be on that stage with everyone yearning to hear what you’re going to say next.

People respect reputation.

Public figures captivate the public. Powerful, smart, funny, crafty, evil, menacing, malicious. It doesn’t matter where on the spectrum they lie; the point is that they’re on the stage and everyone has some sort of conceptual idea of who they are. Their reputation dictates their legitimacy and how people continue the dialogue.

Our industry is filled with these individuals. The stronger your reputation, the stronger the reaction you’ll get from your community. In the Ruby community, we elevate why the lucky stiff to such pseudo-religious heights because we strongly identify with his playful, positive mentality. Apple has a tremendously high-quality, product-driven culture, and it’s no wonder Steve Jobs is heralded there.

Reputation isn’t always such a Puritan concept, either. Zed Shaw is an abrasive jerkstore, but his contributions, writings, and output is a frequent boon to our entire industry. Nothing stirs the pot more than Zed’s blog posts. The same thing happens when NoSQL nukes a startup, or a tech rag’s database gets compromised to pieces. Antagonist bloggers will craft attack pieces, sympathizers defend, and each player carves their reputation into the community a bit deeper.

It’s too simplistic to believe in some fairytale where the most impact belongs to the nicest guy on stage. Sometimes the greatest impact goes to the one with the most insightful commentary, no matter how it gets delivered. Generally, people can disagree and still respect you as long as you’re consistently genuine.

Numbers still don’t matter.

The internet spreads fastest by individuals working on a micro-level, pushing and linking their favorite content to their own networks. You want that to be your content. Give them a reason to push it. Form a narrative around yourself, around your company. There’s a reason why Paul Graham’s essays shoot to the top of Hacker News within minutes of being published, and it’s not because he’s gaming his own site. It’s because he’s created a culture of dedicated individuals who are deeply interested in what he has to say.

At GitHub, we call these people superfans. We owe much of our early, current, and future success to them. It’s not a case of simple fanboyism, either; quite honestly our most vocal supporters are often also our most vocal detractors. They feel passionate enough about GitHub to talk about us, to stimulate dialogue with others, and to call us out when we fuck up. We wouldn’t be here without them.

This is prime time. The internet happens fast. You can type 140 characters, and within a few minutes have the entire world reading your words through retweets, remakes, and reblogs. The entire process is only going to speed up, too. Start building superfans.