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Numbers. They’re kind of a big deal.
Psychologists have long understood how affecting they can be. Real-time, numerical feedback motivates and changes behaviour.
They’re why dieters count calories, teachers assign grades and kids tally the days until Santa arrives.
Facebook understands this better than anyone. It’s why they scatter numbers all over their platform. They are preying on people’s basic need to feel valued by others, and turning this want into a quantifiable measurement.
There are numbers counting “likes,” comments, shares, friends, pending notifications, events, friend requests, messages waiting, chats waiting, photos, places, and so on.
This keeps people hooked to their service.
More time spent using their platform, means more content gets added. The more content added, the more their business grows.
Metric locations on the Facebook news feed (circled in red) - (credit: Ben Grosser)
Artist Ben Grosser believes we pay far more attention to numbers than we realise. That’s why he created a browser extension that removes all Facebook metrics.
This plugin alerts you to the fact, the numbers are created for their benefit, not yours. You can only truly become aware of this, when those metrics are no longer available.
Once installed, here’s a sample of things you might notice:
The red dot
As soon as you log in, you check the alarm-red dot with a number on it. If it’s a high number, there’s a nice dopamine hit straight away. Someone out there loves you!
If there’s no dot, it’s a tad deflating. You're incentivised to generate more content - preferably something great, that will earn more “likes” and friends.
In other words, you are judging your experience based on its metric potential, as opposed to thinking about creating meaningful content.
How many "Likes" have you?
As already mentioned, humans have an evolved need to feel valued by others.
Social media pumps this principle with steroids, by continually and relentlessly showing you those personal-worth measurements all over your screen - “likes”, shares, comments etc.
Research shows that, while this makes people anxious, it also keeps them engaged.
Focusing on how many likes your post receives can make Facebook feel more like a popularity contest than a conversation with friends.
Facebook is very keen on the extreme specificity of time.
Did I really need to know my friend made a chicken pizza “1 minute ago”?
By posting the time so precisely, Facebook wants you to be hyper-aware of how “old” something is. By emphasising the value of the new rather than the old, Facebook is encouraging you to add more content.
This recalls our earlier adage - more content means more money.
Petrified to be demetrified
When I turned off the metrics for the first time, it was a tad unsettling.
I felt like Agent Starling in the Silence of the Lambs, lost in the dark, while Buffalo Bill stalks her in his night vision goggles. I knew the metrics were out there, and everyone else could see them but me.
What were people saying? Was my post getting any traction?
At the same time, I found myself judging the value of posts based on their content rather than how many likes they’d received. Likewise, my interest in another account was judged on their biography rather than friend count.
In some ways, Facebook became lonelier. Part of the fun had been feeling like one of a crowd seeing a joke going viral or an idea being shared.
While I’m willing to accept the loss of this superficial sense of community, I find myself in a quandry. I would like to continue using it as a tool for frivolous amusement, but I also realise my behaviour is being manipulated in negative ways.
Some friends criticised me for tinkering with the product. They said, if I don’t like Facebook, I should just stop using it altogether. Excluding yourself on ethical grounds however, comes with a hefty price.
Facebook happens to be the default way most family and friends communicate these days. By not participating, often means you’re not in touch at all.
I don’t care!
Others told me they didn't care about the metrics, claiming it didn’t affect their behaviour. I believe there are three reasons for this:
Facebook’s use of metrification is now so familiar, it seems perfectly normal.
From a young age, we’ve been conditioned to pay extreme attention to the numbers. Think of school - if we know our score, we know how well we’re doing.
The Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people assess their abilities as greater than they really are. We falsely believe we have agency over the choices we make when using social media.
The metrification of social media is changing the rhythm of life. Even when we’re offline, our mind is online, wondering how many likes we got. It’s partly why we’re checking our phones in bed.
Does Facebook’s obsession with metrics point to its lack of a moral compass? Or is simply a poor reflection on human manipulability? Perhaps it’s both?
For good or ill, the influence of the Demetricator is clear: The numbers, by and large, negatively affect user behaviour. Not just on Facebook I might add, but on all social media platforms.
Twitter Demetricator toggling metrics on/off (credit Ben Grosser)
Instagram Demetricator toggling metrics on/off (credit Ben Grosser)
Facebook’s survival depends on its ability to sell targeted advertising, and those targets are built from the data they collect.
We need tools to change this relationship so we’re not always subject to the system, but instead, given more agency over the choices we make.
There are an iceberg of reasons hidden beneath all of our online behaviours. Maybe it’s loneliness, insecurity, or perhaps something else.
Whatever they are, instead of seducing your attention through behavioural manipulating, what if Facebook looked at the reasons behind a person’s actions instead?
Next week, I’ll try and answer this question. I will suggest, if Facebook and other social media platforms focused on the reasons a person uses social media, rather than their behaviour, they could truly fulfill their promise to create “meaningful communities” and strengthen “our social fabric", all while improving individual wellbeing.