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In late August I traveled to Denmark to interview Ben Grosser, an expert on the issue of quantification – the metrics that rule social media interfaces.It’s hard to distill in a few words the nuances of Grosser’s work: he is an academic, a programmer, an artist and an activist. On his website, he describes his work as thus:

“Artist Benjamin Grosser focuses on the cultural, social, and political effects of software. What does it mean for human creativity when a computational system can paint its own artworks? How is an interface that foregrounds our friend count changing our conceptions of friendship? Who benefits when a software system can intuit how we feel? To examine questions like these, he constructs interactive experiences, machines, and systems that make the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways that software prescribes our behavior and thus, how it changes who we are.”

Throughout the month of November, The Realists will focus on metrics on social media: why are they so prevalent? What happens when you hide numbers (of likes, comments, followers) from social media interfaces?

If you don’t have time to watch the video, here is the full transcript:

So the thing that got me focused on quantification in my case, starting with Facebook, was I noticed that I was obsessed with how many likes I was getting on a particular post or how many notifications are waiting for me. And I started to wonder first of all, why? Why am I focused on these numbers? Why am I always going to how many likes I have rather than who liked it or how much someone commented, rather than the comments that they wrote? And I also wondered then, as a result, what what might that obsession be doing to me as a user? How is that changing the way that I use the site? The reason why social media companies want to foreground metrics is that they are a very effective tool for activating us to pay attention to these systems. I think this goes back to our evolutionarily developed need for esteem. The fact that we… to survive we’ve learned we need to feel valued, whether it’s by ourselves or by others. But this need, this evolutionarily developed need now plays out in the context of capitalism where value is quantifiable and growth…. You know capitalism needs constant growth to succeed. And so it’s this intersection of the need for esteem with the fact that… and the need to feel valued, combined with the fact that value is quantifiable and measurable… that when you put those together into a metric that says something about who you are and how social you are, and what people think about what you post creates what I would call “the desire for more”. Nobody wants to go around saying “nobody liked me”… “Nobody paid attention to me”. They want to see that people paid attention and they want that number to get larger.

I look forward to sharing more content – and a challenge! – about metrics throughout the month of November.

– Elena