On obsession with numbers

We live in a world obsessed with numbers. They are everywhere, from Google Analytics, which is installed on the majority of popular sites, to numbers of followers, likes, tweets etc.

Do we really need to use and rely on the numbers in all places and situations? Let’s dive deeper and discuss few examples.

While reading a book on Amazon Kindle it would highlight some of the most popular phrases bookmarked by other readers. I personally noticed that whenever I see such highlighted section I’d bookmark it too in the most of cases (maybe ~80%). Only recently I realized this behavior of mine. It’s an interesting use case and seems like a very dangerous side-effect because my actions are mostly automatic. I might like or agree with highlighted phrase not because it has value, but because there is a social proof for it. Whenever I encounter such section I would probably spend less time and energy thinking about it, forming my own opinion, because I would rely on conclusions of other people. The second reason why this may be dangerous is that it gives Amazon the possibility to manipulate peoples' opinions.

All Amazon needs to do is to highlight some sections of the book. I’m not suggesting that Amazon is doing this or going to do, all I’m saying that the possibility is there. It’s a similar, although more subtle, situation with Google that has the power to manipulate public opinion, influence elections etc.

Let’s move on to Google Analytics.

In theory, it’s a tool that helps site owners to 1) collect data about visitors, 2) make sense of the data and improve content on the site. But is it really that simple?

First of all, it’s not only that site owner has access to the data but Google itself has such access. Putting so much data and trust into one company doesn’t seem like a wise and reliable long-term solution.

Anyway, assume you’ve got your data. Let’s say you run online blog/magazine or video hosting site. What are you going to do? You will find the most popular content (the one that attracts more views/interactions) and then you:

1) will try to promote it more. E.x. you would put top 10 most popular articles/videos/songs on your home page at the very top

2) will try to create more of the similar content

The main problem here is that there is no direct relation between quality (or value) of the content and it’s popularity. Some Ph.D. work on physics is much more valuable to the society than the most viral action video, pop song, funny picture etc. So what are you going to do? If you blindly rely on analytics and few basic metrics then you are going to change/create your content in a way that maximizes your numbers, simply because you can’t track the quality of the content by Google Analytics and such metrics don’t exist right now in those tools.

There is a high chance that metrics suggested by Google Analytics would become your master and would drive future decisions about your product. There is a great talk by Joe Edelman who explores our obsession with maximizing numbers. He gives an example of YouTube. YouTube has no information on your personal goals while you interact with it. YouTube doesn’t know that you want to learn to play guitar right now at this moment, but what YouTube knows is the most popular content slightly related to you. So if at any point of time you watched a music video, funny video or comedy on YouTube you will have similar recommendations while you will try to focus on learning how to play a guitar.

Why do we have a number of views below every YouTube video, or a number of retweets and likes for each post? Why do we need to know how many people liked a post on Facebook, or our photo on Instagram? If I want to watch a video why should I care how many other people watched it? Wouldn’t it influence my opinion about it? Why can’t we leave it up to the every user to decide for themselves if the content is worth something? People should be able to formulate their own opinions. Otherwise, it becomes a dogma when 1 billion views for pop song validates its worthiness.

The same goes for creators. I’m not sure having all those numbers available to the creator can influence her work in a positive way. When you create something worthy it’s not always possible for people to appreciate it at the moment. There are multiple examples of how now-famous artists died unknown and poor. Or how their work were heavily criticized by contemporaries (e.x. Huxley’s Brave New World). Metrics are all about the current moment. They are not focused on the big picture or big idea, there is no notion of perspective in them. I’d argue that works of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Mozart would be totally different if they used tools available to us and cared about numbers. Because art is about expressing oneself and one’s ideas and not about the anticipation of a public opinion. Moreover, to express a new idea you need to be free of numbers, and should not be influenced by public opinion.

I’ll give you one more example that might be relevant. Paul Graham’s website doesn’t have any number of views, visitors or Google Analytics snippet installed. And that makes sense because a lot of his essays you can read years later.

As Neil Postman expressed in Amusing Ourselves to Death in the modern times we are focused on the current moment which is dictated by our mediums. And our mediums are all about feeds nowadays. And feeds are about numbers. How many new items do you have today in your feed, how many unread items are there and so on. But again, those numbers are mostly focused on entertainment, not on a value that content provides. So numbers usually promote something entertaining. It’s a way to keep something in a feed.

Another problem is that those numbers are becoming a part of the content itself. The published book would include appraisals by famous people or newspapers. The movie title would include credentials of the director and references to her other successes. We would know how many copies an album sold. We would remember how much money particular Hollywood movie gathered. So this information is a part of the movie/album/book now.

Another challenge with numbers is that they can be manipulated. You can buy views, you can make your content popular by spending money and promoting it. So if you have enough money, you can make something mediocre to become very important in the context of the current culture. Why do we need to have a system that can be gamed that easily with enough resources? Why do we need to have a system that prioritizes described distribution of the resources? Instead of spending time on value creation we are spending it on marketing in the bad sense of the word.

And final problem with the new mediums and our reliance on numbers is that they discriminate old content. Mozart doesn’t have online identity, he has no Instagram, no Twitter and he doesn’t have authentic music videos on YouTube and can’t even remotely be compared to Kanye West in the context of the current way of thinking (centered around numbers).

The extreme rise in the quantity of information and content in the last century led to the abundance of it. We feel lost now because there is a huge amount of books, songs, movies, articles etc. The time is limited and we need to be careful while choosing what to consume next.

How was this problem solved? It was solved with the help of the top/hot lists. We have top lists for everything now: Billboard Top 100, 40 before 40, Forbes 500, top stories on Medium, trending songs on Soundcloud, most popular tweets and Twitter Moments, most liked Facebook posts. This sounds like a noble approach - help us to navigate through all this information. But at what cost? It creates a mass culture. It makes people have similar tastes, opinions, fears, beliefs. It makes us lazy and dependent on some external entity.

So, giving all the information above, what can we do now? There are few simple ideas I was thinking about. Some include changes in your behavior:

  • just keep in mind that not everything should be made easier for us. Easy things make us lazy and laziness leads to degradation.

  • be mindful of your personal goals and reflect if some site/app helps you to achieve them or just distracts you.

  • to cope with the abundance of information and content there is a simple solution - just ignore it. Opt out. This idea was hinted by Alain de Botton when he said that the most important things happened not yesterday or today. In fact, they probably happened decades and centuries ago. Pay attention to timeless things.

Some are technological ideas:

  • remove Google Analytics and other similar tools (that is how I run this site).

  • decouple numbers from content. E.x. don’t show how many views/or comments your blog has.

  • maybe have browser extension that cleans up sites and removes comments, numbers of views, suggestions etc.

  • explore new ways of consuming content. Maybe as consumers we need more control on the content representation? Maybe browsers should be unbundled into simpler tools?