On Sunday, November 9, Computational Culture published Ben Grosser’s article “What Do Metrics Want? How Quantification Prescribes Social Interaction on Facebook”. In this piece, Grosser provides a critique of the impact Facebook’s metric-centric interface has upon its users.
Here is my breakdown of his main arguments:
– Capitalist ideology has reimagined the intrinsic human desire for personal worth as the desire for more.
– Quantification (which he defines as “the reduction and enumeration of things and energies and practices and perceptions into uniform parts”) provides a cohesive system for measuring fulfillment in terms of growth, hence enforcing the capitalist valorization of more.
– On sites like Facebook, quantification manifests in the form of front-facing metrics, which enumerate users’ conceptions of social capital (ie Friend Count, Like Count), and frame the object of sociality in terms of accumulation.
– Metricated sociality, in combination with the prevailing culture of social surveillance, results in “the graphopticon”: “a self-induced audit within social networks… where the many watch the metrics of the many”.
– The graphopticon encourages users to measure their self-worth against that of their peers, in terms of metric performance. This circumstance drives competition and pressures users to constantly maintain an image of social success, characterized by high-performing metrics.
– Facebook’s ultimate agenda is to drive user activity within the site. Visible metrics support this agenda by 4 main strategies: competition, emotional manipulation, reaction, and homogenization.
- Competition: the desire to metrically succeed one’s peers drives activity
- Emotional manipulation: the social anxiety of anticipating metrics drives users to escape their suspense through constant activity
- Reaction: being rewarded for activity with notifications and metric feedback encourages compulsive activity
- Homogenization: not so much a driver of action, homogenization is the mechanism by which metrics abstract user activity into aggregate data, tailored to targeted advertising
I was really excited to see someone addressing the commodification of sociality within social media as both an internalized attitude amongst users, and as a corporate motive. Demonstrating the relationship between these phenomena, Grosser highlights the extent to which social media interface design can influence our social behaviours and attitudes. He warns that we are being pressured into a mode of sociality that demands constant labour and production, and that our social existence is being increasingly molded into a product that companies profit from.
If I could build on the ideas brought forth, I do think his exploration of capitalism’s presence in user behaviours could be expanded. Central to Grosser’s logic is that capitalism wants more, and that in the context of Facebook this desire manifests as the pursuit of greater metrics. I agree that a user’s perceived status and sense of worth correlates positively with the quantity of likes their content receives, but I think users – humans – deserve more credit than this. We can desire and pursue “more” in more complex terms than numeric quantity.
In this vein, I am interested in how the presence of a capitalist mentality pervades our evaluation of relationships and treatment of others. Some examples:
– Measuring what a friend is “worth” to you in terms of who they connect you to, how much they interact with your content, or what they invite you to.
– Adding friends for the sake of expanding the scope of your self-promotion
– Keeping tabs on the power dynamics of a relationship in terms of reciprocity and indebtedness
With each of these examples, evaluation and the motivation to act is informed by the presence of visible metrics, accompanied by some form of aspiration toward upward social mobility. The major threat here is that we begin to conceive of our relationships as assets, or vessels for profit. If we think and act this way inside the environment of Facebook or any similar online social network, what is to stop us from thinking this way all the time? What new tools might emerge to further enhance such attitudes and behaviours?
Some things to keep an eye on: