I have been watching people use various networks for years and for the average user their contributions and participations have multiple motivation factors. For the power user, the marketer, the brand, or the promoter it seems clear to me that their goal, even though they don’t actually know it or define it as such, is to get to the broadcast position.
Clay Shirky talks about the broadcast position in his book “Here Comes Everybody”. In his breakdown of the power law distribution and the impact it has on communication Shirky talks about how conversations shift.
As in normal power law distribution, most writers have few readers. Such readers and writers can all play similar amount so of attention to one another, forming relatively tight conversations clusters. (This is the pattern of small groups of friends using weblog or social networking tools.) As the audience grows larger, into hundreds, the tight pattern of “everyone connected to everyone” becomes impossible to support-conversation is still possible, but it is in a community that is much more loosely woven. And with thousands of people paying attention, much less millions, fame starts to kick in. Once writers start getting more attention than they can return, they are forced into a width versus depth tradeoff. They can spend less time talking to everyone.
In looking at a network like Twitter (which is the example site de jour lately) you can see a lot of users building their accounts to get to the broadcast position. Initially there is a lot of interaction with their followers but as they strategically grow their account it shifts more towards where they are selectively interacting with mostly other power users and using their voice to broadcast. These users can spend less time interacting and building and more time promoting, which is you see some of the larger twitter accounts this is strongly the case. (A lot of the users fall in the 5,000-10,000 follower range.)
In that past, as in the early days of blogging, this popularity would be built around the authority of the account holder but with the tools that are available out there and with the barrier of entry so low there are plenty of people in the broadcast position built off of hard work not authority.
Does getting to the broadcast position give you authority?
Without a doubt it gives the account creator some sort of social proof and authority does come with some sort of popularity but what number that is depends on the network, the niche you are in, and who your competition is. I have seen a number of blogs that show off a twitter friend counter rather than subscribers as a form of social proof to create authority. After looking at their traffic scores and links from various services you can see that the blog would have very poor authority using the older definition. But using their twitter account as social proof allows them to create the air of authority through different means. (It is vastly easier to gain twitter subscribers as opposed to subscribers.)
Using social media and getting to a broadcast position in various networks allows the user to manufacturer their own authority as opposed to having that authority created by a deeper endorsement of their work be it links, subscribers, or sharing of content. Achieving the broadcast position and authority is now an achievable goal through various channels. Watching how some of the newer mediums are being used, specifically micro-blogging, you can see how this has become a driving force and changing how authority can be created and perceived.