Addictive approval signals and measurement culture

If you can’t measure it, does it exist?

I have heard the phrase “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” quite a few times recently and it always jars. The romantic in me finds the need for everything to be quantifiable and able to be measured in order to be valid to be a rather sad way of viewing the world.

There a quite a lot of things in life that we can’t quantify but, to me, that doesn’t make them any less real or valuable.

Our sense of self and wellbeing, the depth of our friendships or the tone of a conversation we just had are not things that can easily be measured or quantified; these are things that we feel. These are things with an intrinsic value that we can’t put a number to but have an innate understanding of.

Our ability to be content with this sense, this unspoken intangible knowledge, is something that our quantitative measurement culture might be starting to erode, I feel.

Quantitative culture

In 2015, we seem obsessed with measurement. We quantify everything, so that we can track it and analyse it. From wearable fitness tracking devices, to mobile apps that track your sleep patterns, there are more and more ways and means for us to measure key aspects of our daily lives.

This seems to give us comfort; we are reassured that tracking activities will allow us to achieve greater focus on them. It has even been said “that which is measured, improves” or rather the very act of measuring something, improves performance. This is known colloquially as Pearson’s Law.

Whilst our quantitative culture and desire to measure does have many benefits when it comes to making progress towards a set goal – is this culture positive to us socially? On this, I remain unconvinced.

“Likes” give us a measure of popularity

When I was younger, I wasn’t particularly popular at school. I never quite seemed to fit in; as a state school child who at eleven won a scholarship to an independent secondary school for girls and then as someone who had come from an independent girls’ school back to a mixed state college at the age of sixteen. I seemed vastly out of step socially with the comprehensive school kids, even though they were much more like me in their background than my peers at the girls’ school.

Both of these transitions were hard and I had a strong sense that I wasn’t well liked or understood – and this sense was more than enough to have a negative impact on my self-esteem.

I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been had I been able to quantify my popularity or lack of it.

If Facebook had been around at the time of these awkward transitions to new schools, I would have been able to see how many people accepted my request to be friends. Of those friends I “made”, I would have been able to judge how they received the thoughts and content I tried to share by the number of likes it received.

There, on screen, I would see my “likes”, ever being counted by a digital ticker; a tangible measure of approval and popularity. What would that have felt like? What does that feel like to teenagers now?

Are these approval signals a real reward?

Subconsciously we come to see these approval signals as a reward; receiving an instantaneous release of dopamine every time we click on a notification – we seek it out, as we are conditioned to come to expect it.

Every time that little red circled number pops up we know that when we check we’ll likely see one of these social signals, these little quantifiable gifts of approval that we quickly learn to love and need.

But is this system of “likes” really there to reward us? Arguably, it’s not.

Audience Data

These signals, to which we become so addicted, are really a way that companies like Facebook can come to understand us; big enormous swaths of data flooding in every second that help them to understand the likes, dislikes and social hierarchy of their audience.

How we interrelate, who likes what from whom and how much – all of these interests and behaviours are measured in this way to inform advertising and marketing, which is how companies like Facebook make their money.

The cultural significance of Facebook

Ok, so the commoditised use of audience data isn’t news – we all know how Facebook works and how the system of likes feeds their relationship with brands. They are a commercial entity – they need to make money and that’s fair enough on the face of it.  The problem lies in the fact that socially and culturally, Facebook is more than just a company.

Facebook is so entrenched in our daily lives as our primary social networking platform that it’s become a verb. And so we need to think carefully about what this means.

A platform where identities are shaped

I wonder if when Facebook was first conceived of that they realised what enormous consequences it would have for the way we communicate – and that it would become, arguably, the most prominent means for us to express our identities online.

When you think of quite how significant that is, and how the use of Facebook is almost innate now – pretty much a reflex, multiple times a day – it seems odd that it might not really have been designed people first, but brands first, as a communication platform.

Likes, quantifiable likes, have become a means of measuring approval and are at the core of the dominant means of communication for a generation. And yet, they were designed for brands; brands over people.

Subtleties of communication

So is being able to quantify and measure social signals really in our interests?

If we had designed a new communication system for people – for our global community – with full knowledge our how culturally entrenched it would become, would we have put this kind of measurement system at its core?

Or would we have placed more value on sentiment and based our systems around more subtle and intangible aspects of communication?

The quantitative fallacy

So, it was that quote “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist” that got me thinking about this topic. I looked it up, and it is acknowledged that this way of thinking can cause bias, and it’s this way known as the quantitative fallacy, or the McNamara fallacy.

I think that I’ll end on a quote that pretty much says the opposite “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts” (which interestingly has been quoted by so many different people that it’s hard to find the original source, but I like to think it was Einstein).

Do let me know your thoughts on quantitative culture and social metrics in the comments section below – I would love to hear your take on this topic.

If you are interested in this topic and want to explore it further, I recently discussed the announcement of the introduction of a Facebook “dislike” button with Lee Colbran, Fresh Egg’s digital marketing director. We touched on ideas around the effect of quantitative culture in our debate – you can have a listen here.

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1 Comment

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  1. 1
    Julian

    Good post Lana,
    from what I hear from friends, Instagram is being used by today’s school kids just in the way you describe what Facebook could have done for you (or to you) during school years. As a friendship and approval measurement platform it is the source of anxiety, agony and bullying for many and even used as a tool for malicious mind games.
    While I love to measure things in my personal life, calories consumed, miles and altitude cycled, weigh fish caught etc these measurements never govern my life. I find it interesting but measuring does not make me strive for improvement, especially for things that should be fun. Like life. I can have red little alerts all over my iPhone apps and it doesn’t bother me, I don’t need to check. I can also smoke one or two cigarettes on a night out and then not do it again for months. What I am trying to say is that like so many other things, measurement of every day life will only have an impact on you if you have an addictive personality and you allow them to.

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