Numbers on the Board: How Social Media Metrics Changed The Way We Socialize

Numbers on the Board: How Social Media Metrics Changed The Way We Socialize

By Kevin Luke, Co-founder



1. Mix socially with others. “he didn’t mind socializing with his staff”.

2. Make (someone) behave in a way that is acceptable to their society. “newcomers are socialized into orthodox ways”.

I always liked numbers. Not in nerdy mathlete type of way, I just liked having something concrete, something measurable. In schoolyard arguments I would always avoid saying this artist, or this game, is the best, I instead would argue that my favourite thing was the greatest. Great is one of those words that implies quantitative justification — this number is greater than that number.

Fast forward a few years and I’m starting to understand why it is that metrics, in particular, are so valuable. The first project you have to do that involves distributing a survey, collecting information, and then presenting that information in a meaningful way, teaches you very quickly that if it can’t be measured, it can’t be analyzed.

Coincidentally, during this transition period, for me, from adolescence into adulthood, is when a different kind of metric was introduced to my social circle. Social media gave everyone with a healthy respect for social standing a very real, very sobering understanding of how important metrics can be.

“This person has over a thousand friends on Facebook? I mean, they seem pretty boring in class, but dammit I need to become their friend. Surely they have something about them that makes them so popular, and I need to be part of their social circle. Who knows what I’ve been missing out on all this time?”

I’ve heard some variation of this dilemma far too many times to count. First, it was Facebook friends, then it was Twitter followers, then Instagram followers. The pressure of being a popular kid now had an easily accessible means of measuring status and prioritizing who we should bother befriending got a lot easier.

I always had to resist rolling my eyes. For me, I never saw too much value in online socializing. It seemed weird, fake, flawed. I don’t even like texting, if I want to talk, I’ll come to see you. If that’s not possible, I’ll call. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why everyone gravitated towards every new social media platform.

A few years ago, I didn’t have any social media accounts. I had deleted both my Facebook and Twitter account years earlier because I wasn’t using them, and I was totally cool with it. Then a friend convinced me I was missing out by not being on Twitter, then SnapChat, and by the end of the year I was back on Facebook with an Instagram to boot.

Instagram was the wake-up call for me. For the first time, I understood the way my peers interacted with social media. All of a sudden, I was checking my phone every few minutes. If I posted a picture, I would constantly refresh my feed, hoping to see more likes and comments. When I was out living life, I’d always have it in the back of mind questioning if anything was worth putting up on social. Now, this might seem pretty normal to most of you reading this, but it really wasn’t for me. I had become the very thing I had criticized for years. Social media use came at the sacrifice of my productivity, my presence, and my self-worth.

This is the part where I’m supposed to detail how I went about a social media detox, and give you some advice for doing the same. I won’t do that, because there are no hard and fast rules to self-care. Everyone has their own unique relationship with their social accounts. I probably have an easier time exercising restraint than many of my friends because most of these social platforms have only been part of life for a short time. They never were an integral part of my social life, which is more than many other young people can say.

The deceitful part about all of this is that online personalities are not necessarily an accurate reflection of in-person personalities. Plenty of people have an inflated online presence, that really is just an illusion of grandeur. I call these people “Kardashian-types”: famous for being famous (disclaimer: I actually have a lot of respect for the Kardashians’ opportunistic entrepreneurship and marketing skills, but that’s for another blog post).

See, social media following works as a positive feedback loop; the more followers you have, the more exposure you have, the more people see you and assume you have high social value, the more people follow you, so on and so forth. However, oftentimes all it takes to get this loop started is to ramp up your mutual followers early on. And this is why Facebook is the ideal jumping point. Unlike most social media platforms, the most important vanity metric on Facebook is Friends, not Followers. Your Facebook friends are all mutual, so there is no consideration of Followers-to-Following ratio. And those who played the Facebook game well, prior to the introduction of Twitter, Instagram, and the like, made out like bandits.

Perhaps it’s because of the unique time period I was growing up in, with regards to social media evolution, but I saw this happen too many times to ignore it. Consider the following scenario:

The shy girl in class, who doesn’t really talk much, or have many friends, sends you a friend request on Facebook. Of course, you accept. Because even though you don’t think you’ve ever actually spoken to her, you do recognize her, and hey, it would be rude not to accept. You check out her profile, lo and behold, she has way more Facebook friends than you. Her profile is full of statuses and pictures. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think she was the most popular girl at school.

Maybe it’s a good thing, you think to yourself, this whole online social world. If people are too shy or anxious in person, they could always use social media as an analogue.

A few years later, Instagram comes out, and by the time that shy girl follows you (at the app’s suggestion of course, because you are still Facebook friends) you notice that she has all kinds of vacation and party photos, with hundreds of likes. After a few years on social, that doesn’t surprise you anymore. In fact, you’re happy for her, it looks like social media helped her come out of her shell, and now her life seems awesome.

A little ways down the road, you catch up with some old friends over a drink. Reminiscing about the old days, you bring up that shy girl from class who’s now living a more extravagant life at this age than you could imagine. Much to your shock, one of your old friends lets you know that a few months ago, she ran away from home, and no one’s seen her since. Or she got pregnant and dropped out of school. Or, perhaps, something a lot worse.

This isn’t a cautionary tale or an exaggerated hypothetical situation that could happen. Situations like this have happened to people I know, and I’m willing to bet, people you know as well.

What then is the point? We can all acknowledge that the obsession with social media metrics has perpetuated the contemporary self-esteem crisis, plaguing millennials and Gen-Z in particular. Yet we’re not naïve enough to think that people are going to leave social media en masse anytime soon. Instead, it would be more valuable to consider how to deal with this new part of life.

This is why I think it’s helpful to use the term social currency. When we use a practical, utilitarian word like currency, it allows us to step back and analyze this issue. When we consider the vain metrics of social media to be a form of currency, an economic unit, we can appreciate the online social world for what it is: a marketplace for attention. Every time we post on social, we’re coming to the marketplace as a producer, a seller, and we want people to consume our product. The tricky part is, that we don’t really know who is consuming our content, and of those, who actually enjoyed it, unless they “pay” for it; we need to see that like/comment/upvote/retweet to know that our content is enjoyable enough for the consumer to provide you with positive feedback.

The complicated thing about the social marketplace is that virtually every consumer is also a producer. So, we can’t quite be sure if someone actually enjoyed our content, or if they just expect blind reciprocity. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. This fear can lead to paranoia. Perhaps no one actually likes my content; they just want me to feel indebted to them, and I do. Don’t we all feel an obligation to eventually comment something complimentary on a picture posted by someone who never fails to comment on our photos?

Economic theory comes into play even further here. Like all economic resources, social currency is subject to the laws of supply and demand. The scarcer your resource, the more valuable. If you like every single post, then your social currency loses value very quickly, it’s taken for granted. If your like brings more attention to a given post, such as that of a social influencer, then the value of your currency goes way up.

This sounds pretty problematic, no? Surely there must be a positive side of social currency, you ask? Well, yes. Isn’t it obvious? It’s a cool way to teach economics.

Okay, in all seriousness, this way of interpreting those social metrics that cause us so much anxiety, I believe, can help reduce the stress. Think about the analogy for a moment. If I were to sell my content, be it photos, writing, music, what have you, I would be glad that anybody was willing to pay for it. I don’t compare my writing to George Orwell, hell I don’t even compare my writing to the new columnist at the local paper. I don’t need to be as valued in the marketplace as people who have been doing this a lot longer than me.

I hear you objecting. It’s not just celebrities and professionals that we compare ourselves to on social media, it’s our friends, peers, coworkers. Well, there’s no easy way to put this, but it’s a cold, competitive, judgmental, selfish world out there. If you can remember life before social media, you’ll remember that there were always cool kids and less-than-cool kids. The only difference now is that there are clear numbers plastered online to communicate our apparent social status to the world. Apparent being the keyword; those numbers are only a reflection of the level of work you put into that particular marketplace.

We all have predispositions that allow us to be more, or less, successful in a given venue. I don’t hold it against the guy with an eidetic memory for testing better than me, and likewise, I don’t hold anything against the pretty boy for having ten times as many Instagram followers than me.

The central point here is that you need to internalize the understanding that each social media platform is, at its core, a marketplace. Some individuals do better because they sell their product better; some do well because they established a strong network before entering the market; and still, some do annoyingly well because they inherited a desirable product.

Distance yourself from the product, that’s the key. If you obsess about your social currency, convince yourself to go back to R&D. Make your Instagram posts about quality photography; even if it’s a selfie, people appreciate quality over everything. Not getting enough retweets? Focus in on being funnier, or more informative. It’s not about you, it’s about your content, don’t take it as a commentary on you as a person.

This piece began with the dictionary definition of the word socialize, a word that’s been on my mind ever since I started to question the long-term effects of social media. You would’ve noticed that there were two distinct definitions for “socialize”. They might seem similar at first, but they mean very different things. Most of us use the word as described in the first definition; to socialize at a party by talking to people, for instance. But the second definition is the way that word is most used in sociology and psychology circles. We are made to behave a certain way, mostly through childhood, because that particular way of behaving is expected to be the norm in our environment.

It took far too long for mental health, self-esteem, and self-identity to become core components of contemporary education. The onus is now on us, to not only help ourselves but to make sure we don’t let the troubles of social media destroy the younger generation, who have never known a world without it.

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