Taking pleasure in small numbers: or, are big social media stats always best?

Critical academics have long been wary of the way formal quantitative data get used to rank, assess and differentially value universities, departments and people.  Do similar concerns apply to social networking statistics?  Or, is this data on likes, views and followers quite a different matter? At a time when pressures exist here also to grow one’s numbers, this post asks whether there can be any pleasure in small numbers.

photo: Rivka Cocker

photo: Rivka Cocker

 

I grew up in the film business. As a kid, on a Saturday evening, while others watched tv or saw a movie, we would stand on the street watching cinema lines. If the queue circled the block, we often headed for dinner at a small Turkish Crouch End cafe; if – as was often the case – no one was in line, we’d return home, speculating as we drove: was the weather too hot, too cold, too rainy, or too sunny; was the film too serious, or too depressing? Were the reviews too critical; was there something better on the box? Had people maybe found a ‘bootleg’ video copy, and so saw no point in going out and paying money to see something they could see at home for free? My childhood taught me several things: that numbers mattered, but that guessing what they disclosed was tricky. Numbers could generate a lot of speculation, but they didn’t give their truths up easily, if at all.

A childhood of queue-counting came to mind as I was thinking about the statistical information social media sites generate and how we as users use them. Alongside the “likes” that Facebook, Twitter and other sites document, is the information about who is friending, following, sharing and retweeting. Academia.edu, aimed at… well, academics, tells you how many views and downloads your posted publications have received, from where, and whether you have hit the top 5 or 1%. And, of course, there are many other social media sites; and far more sophisticated stats.

Governed through our pleasures

What does this information do for us… and what does it do to us? Is checking one’s personal stats a fun way of whiling away a spare three or four minutes – a new kind of auto-pleasuring always available through a quick, discreet click? Or does this self-tracking show how ever more intensively and insidiously numbers and rankings control our lives, governing us, and producing productive value (for employers, companies and others), through our addictions to attention, to being noticed, and to our not-to-be-disclosed secret wish to go “viral”?

I decided to ask some friends and colleagues who use social media what they thought.

One friend remarked, “On Facebook it’s fairly impossible to ignore stats, as you receive notifications every time the number increases. Twitter informs you every time another user retweets or favourites.  So I look at stats a lot as part of my social media use.  Really, it is one of the main things I do when I log in to social media sites.”

Another commented, “the display of numbers in Twitter or Academia are consciously designed to have an impact: numbers (claim they) say what you are. This is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it furthers the neoliberal lexicon of numbers, which (claim to) measure one’s power and translate it in a language that (at face value) needs neither translation nor interpretation. On the other hand, numbers can sometimes be the weapon of the weak, for those who hold no administrative/academic power and yet contribute to public debate by mobilising a critical mass.”

Colleagues and friends talked about checking their stats, and taking note of who was noticing them; of the pleasures in a spike in numbers or of people they respected and followed following them in turn. Their feelings resonated with my own experiences – that brief moment of satisfaction logging on to find a post or tweet has been viewed or shared. But, while the pleasures are apparent, the drive to grow one’s scale makes me, like others, also uneasy.

photo: Rivka Cocker

photo: Rivka Cocker

 

This is not a piece against stats – quantitative data can be used in progressive ways, even as large stats also raise concerns about how they’re generated and mined, as danah boyd and Kate Crawford explore. What I want to address here is the alignment of value with scale – to question the assumption high numbers are always best.

Working as an academic, ranking through stats is everywhere. Our departments’ flourishing and stability depends on league tables, on national student satisfaction surveys, and on research assessment scores. Our careers depend on citations, funding successes, and student evaluations (how close to 5.0 can we get across a range of indices?). As universities introduce targets and floors, demanding our figures go up, we and our places of work are ceaselessly rated, ranked and number crunched. We have become, as Deborah Lupton usefully explores, “quantified selves”.

And many of us are critical of this – we argue that numbers and rankings pit us against each other; that departments, academics and pieces of research can’t be converted into meaningful figures, crunched into a league table position as if better and worse are clear-cut distinctions. We know our writing, research, grant applications, departments and universities have strengths and weaknesses; that these are qualitative rather than quantitative distinctions; and that they may also be subjective ones. A journal article one person finds superficial and descriptive, another may rate as accessible, interesting and well-explained. Critical academics are well versed in the problems of judgment-making, even as they regularly make judgments.

So, if numbers and rankings are not to be trusted; if they reduce complex lives and activities to simple figures; what does this mean for social media statistics? Are they simply more evidence of the dominating and disturbing power of quantitative information; how it has seeped into our lives and into our imaginations so that, for instance, where once we worried about the quality of our friendships, now we worry they’re far too few – and that our ninety Facebook friends is not only shamefully low but shamefully visible?

photo: Rivka Cocker

photo: Rivka Cocker

 

Or, are social media figures different? And, if they are, does the difference lie in the way we use them or in what the numbers tell us?

While friends and colleagues said it mattered knowing their posts and tweets were shared, liked and followed, the reasons they gave differed from the ranking mentality, which dominates mainstream academic numbers. In social media, stats let you know other people are interested in your ideas and material. People described this as particularly important for campaigning and law reform blogs; followers, and rising stats, isn’t just a matter of personal vanity, but growing political support.

More than just numbers

Stats are also more than stats. As one academic-activist remarked, the important thing isn’t just having followers or blog viewers but building a political network where viewing of blogs and tweets eventually leads to face-to-face contact. For this social media user, the disembodied, distant connections between strangers had value as a precursor to working in more embodied and proximate ways; not as a substitute or proxy for it.

What also emerged was a generosity with likes and shares. Unlike the limited currency of funding or league table positions where one person or institution’s superior position means others must do less well, viewing and noticing other people’s postings seems more like an alternative currency where resources are far less limited. So, people can endlessly ‘like’ their friends’ blogs and tweets; but generosity is not necessarily driven by pre-existing social relationships. One colleague described how she would go out of her way to support new blogs and tweeters if they were developing arguments and analyses that she respected. Experienced bloggers know statistics can make a difference to how people feel.

For, like the queue snaking around the cinema, it’s demoralising when nobody shows up. Or, is it?

One friend remarked, “I don’t ‘feel depressed’ when my follower numbers drop although … I might worry if they suddenly all abandoned me. I have, on occasion, though, looked back through my Twitter records to try to figure out who it is that’s stopped following me, although never for more than a minute or two.”

Another added, “I could imagine some people might develop an inflated sense of their own importance, and others a sense of failure.  It’s possible, too, that in some places they may be used as some kind of metric, but the number of views is such a hopeless indicator of anything substantive I can’t imagine that happening anytime soon.”

Social media users understand the vagaries of numbers. Like movie queues, there are good and bad times for tweeting; and blog posts may remained un-viewed because something else is grabbing attention.

What can small numbers do?

If small numbers tell us little about the quality of what’s been said; if they are not a useful proxy for popularity or value – at least not always, can we approach small numbers differently, focusing less on what they are than on what they do?

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Certainly, small numbers may not do much. Indeed, their lack of potency is the cause of their frequent dismissal. A political campaign with a handful of followers; an academic posting that’s largely ignored – these constitute the “natural” wastage in the struggle for impact.

But do small numbers have attributes or qualities that may be missing from large numbers?

Playing with small numbers

There is something about the presumed insignificance of small numbers that lends itself to play. Of course, not all play is sweet. Two colleagues with tiny blog followings battling to stay ahead; the momentary prick of defeat when one’s seven viewings is trumped by a colleague’s twenty.

But play doesn’t have to mean competition. Instead, it can suggest a mix of pleasure, attentiveness, and mimicry – of enjoyably replaying what is elsewhere treated as serious and as mattering, exercising a careful attention, but in a different key. We’re playing when we say, “Five people have viewed my post; two more than yesterday!” We know five is a very small figure. Yet still, five real people have gone to the site (although they could be bot visits triggered by key words, or family members loyally following a Facebook link; and, of course, viewers may not have actually read the post, but just skimmed its first paragraph).

Still, five people can be fun. Who are they? What made them read this, here, now? How did they find it?

Small numbers allow others to join in, without competing or feeling overshadowed by a boast. They know we know we’re playing – that the 66% increase in viewings while statistically large is numerically tiny, that the figures are too small to make a difference or have impact. It doesn’t matter, it’s just play.

It is sometimes thought that academics incline too easily towards playing; using a ludic aesthetic to justify a professional or maybe personal gravitation towards obliquity; enjoying their creative thinking safe in the knowledge that little is at stake.

Managers sometimes worry, but I think few academics desire irrelevance. But if this is so, when it comes to small numbers, what else is going on?

Inhabiting a professional culture where large numbers are desired, playing with small numbers is like a purgative – a way of managing the pressures by giving voice to the tensions (and investments) in what numbers mean. Play acknowledges how firmly and how intimately stats govern us – including through the desires and anxieties that they generate. Small numbers don’t disavow the pleasures of getting attention, of knowing who is listening. But, play them out in a different key.

Catharsis

We might think of small numbers as parodic, wryly retracing the conversations big numbers generate, acting as if it makes no difference whether we’ve generated attention from five or five thousand. Through gentle satire and the troubling of assumptions, small numbers – proudly spoken – challenge the taken for granted legitimacy, esteem and worth that big numbers and their holders award themselves.

But more than this…

Small numbers hold out to us the possibility of converting figures back into real, living humans. The possibility that no one might visit a blog makes the occasional passerby a stimulant to the imagination and to our speculations: who was that person in …, viewing this post at 4 am?

Many thanks to Matthew, Sarah, Mairead, Fleur, Mariano, Mary and Didi for their thoughts and help in writing this.

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