Once in a very blue moon, and generally when Mercury is so far in retrograde that it is basically moonwalking through the solar system, I have an argument with someone on Twitter. I only do it when it’s something I truly believe in but, even so, that doesn’t make me any prouder of myself for doing it. Anyway, I was debating with someone, when suddenly another woman journalist swooped in to back up my opponent. The journalist in question had more followers than I did and, immediately, all of her followers started “liking” all of her responses to me. I could feel myself becoming physically panicked. I knew that the more people who “liked” our argument, the more Twitter timelines it would appear in, and I could find myself unwittingly on display to thousands. This issue that I had previously felt very reasonable and clear about now made me feel like a frightened, cornered animal. I may have thought I was doing the right thing, but she had what every army needs most: numbers.
Why do we have numbers on social media? We get alerts when people like, retweet or follow us, but is there any true need to count them? Does the fact that Ronan Farrow has 714,000 Twitter followers make him an objectively better journalist than say, Jane Bradley, who has a Pulitzer nomination but a comparatively paltry 16,300? Is an Instagram post with 1.6 million likes objectively more beautiful than one with 25,000? And, most of all, if we had no knowledge of this data, would the internet be changed, fundamentally, and for the better?
These are questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, so it was surprising to see that Kanye West was echoing the same sentiment just four days ago.
"We should be able to participate in social media without having to show how many followers or likes we have," West tweeted. "Just like how we can turn off the comments we should be able to turn off the display of followers. This has an intense negative impact on our self worth."
In a world where everyone’s trying to quit social media and almost no one seems to be succeeding, it seems like the only solution is to create more mindful, emotionally healthy social media
It has actually been an idea that has been kicking around online for a while. Another rapper, Kelvyn Colt, suggested the notion a year ago, after seeing his younger brother’s social media. “These numbers, they trigger something in you. When you see hundreds and hundreds likes coming in, it’s like doing drugs. You get happy. And for a young kid… they can’t cope with it. They get addicted. And it affects us, as adults. Don’t try to see the numbers of social media. Use it as it is supposed to be used – to communicate.”
Both Colt and Kanye are on to something – numbers in social media do genuinely affect how we judge our own lives. In 2014, artist and writer Benjamin Grosser published an essay in the software journal Computational Culture, stating that our human need for personal growth and strong relationships are being dangerously exploited by social media because we’ve injected them with a capitalist need for “more”. Think about it: we’re taking something that we normally apply to business – the growth reports, the audits, the helpful graphs – and layering it on top of the success of our fucking birthday photos. Even if you make zero money out of your social media, you’re still applying the principles of capitalism to judge and modify your own existence. Photo A got 143 likes, but photo B only got 31, indicating that the elements that made photo A successful – the dog, the baby, the engagement ring, whatever – must be replicated in future photos, to the detriment of whatever was happening in photo B. Who cares if you were happy in photo B? We’re running a business here, not a charity.
Grosser even went a step further by creating Twitter and Facebook “demetricators”: browser plug-ins that strip all of the numbers out of your social media so you have no idea what’s successful and what’s not. I installed it, just to see how it made me feel.
Here’s my Twitter without the “demetricator”:
And here it is with it:
The platform remains entirely the same. The functionality is completely unchanged, except, with the demetricator, I have no idea how talked about those London “trends” are, no idea how popular that dog is and – perhaps most crucially of all – no idea how popular I am. There are no numbers to indicate how I should feel about a tweet – I don’t need to feel depressed if a homeless charity’s call for donations only has eight retweets, while a tweet about how Ross from Friends is “the worst” has 500. Weirdly, it makes me conscious of how prevalent my unconscious biases were before – oh, if this right-on feminist got a bunch of numerical acclaim for saying something right-on, then she must be right! I’ll hit like, too, without even bothering to think about whether I agree with her.
In a world where everyone’s trying to quit social media and almost no one seems to be succeeding – or, at least, they’re succeeding for a short while only to come back on and tell us all about it – it seems like the only solution is to create more mindful, emotionally healthy social media. And taking the numbers out seems like a great place to start.