Beyond the tyranny of likes and retweets: social media beyond the numbers

Scrolling through your Twitter feed turns up all kinds of metrics, such as how many followers you have or how often your tweets have been liked and retweeted. But how does that affect your experience of the social network?
How does the number of followers you have affect your experience on Twitter? (Pixabay)

Do you religiously check to see how many times your pithy observation get retweeted? Does your mood brighten the more and more likes your Facebook post receives?

Ben Grosser, artist and professor at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design

If so, you're not alone. But maybe we're paying just a bit too much attention to the numbers  -- at the cost of the content.

That's what artist and new media professor Ben Grosser was wondering when he created the "Twitter Demetricator," a browser extension that removes all the statistics from your Twitter feed - so you can't measure, at least on Twitter's terms, how popular a post may be.

"The first thing you notice when you use the software is that you almost instantly realize how much attention you were paying to what those numbers said," said Grosser, who teaches at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design.

When we see something has a lot of tweets, or someone has many followers, we presume that means they have authority- Ben Grosser

He suggested we're getting a bit obsessive about measuring worth by our retweets. "I think that we have grown to attribute meaning to the numbers themselves," he said. "When we see something has a lot of tweets, or someone has many followers, we presume that means they have authority."

However, in a bot-filled Twitterverse, as we now know, this isn't the case. "We're finding out more and more, especially in relation to, for example, the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, these numbers don't necessarily indicate human action."

Singer Katy Perry's Twitter page, "demetricated."

Worse, many of us, he believes, now see those metrics as an end in themselves, rather than delving into the actual content itself or reactions to it. It's now  something that most social-media apps bake right into their interface.

"It's designed to pay more attention to the numbers and less attention to the content itself," he said. "So the fact that someone has read tweets or that you're getting likes doesn't necessarily lead you to investigate who liked it or what the comments are in response or who tweeted it and what they said in response."

Part of the problem is societal - we have a deep need to be able to quantify success or wellbeing.

"As children we would go to school and we learned to get better scores, and to value higher numbers, all the way through to college and into our job, where our performance is measured and quantified."

And that's something that social media feeds into -- and potentially makes worse, because the more successful the numbers say you are, the more privileged you become as a social media user, he says.

"We've got a system where the more followers you have, the more likes you receive, the more visibility you have within the system."