Before the advent of social media, no one would have thought to tally the number of people they considered friends. Or try to keep track of precisely how many people appreciated a joke they told. But with Facebook, our social lives became quantified. Now, whether we like it or not, we’re acutely aware of how many friends we have and how many people like the observations we share. Of course, those "friends" and "likes" aren’t perfect real world analogs, but they’re close enough to make us pay attention. Ben Grosser, an MFA student in New Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wondered what the Facebook experience would be like without all those metrics. So he made a browser extension to get rid of them.
His Facebook Demetricator purges the social network of all numbers, from the like and share counts beneath status updates to the friend totals found on profile pages. No number was small enough to escape Grosser’s wrath: even the "+1" on the "add friend" button disappears. According to Grosser, the result is an experience that’s more about what people are posting than how everyone else is receiving it. With the numbers absent, he explains, "I focus on the content: what people said, who they are."
But the feedback he’s getting from users suggests that the plugin could have an even more profound effect on how people use the site. "So far," Grosser told me, "a theme is a strong sense of relief. [Users] report feeling calmer in the absence of metrics. One person used the word 'liberated’ to describe how their addiction to self-tracking has fallen away in the absence of these numbers. Another talks about how they no longer engage in a constant comparison and contrast of people and ideas based on the metrics themselves." That’s some powerful stuff. And even though I don’t consider myself a compulsive Facebook tracker by any means, some of those behaviors do ring true. If only subconsciously, we can’t help but compare the numbers when they’re right there, staring us in the face.
And they really are in our faces. Pulling up Facebook as I was writing this, I counted 11 totals of one sort or another, begging for my attention or announcing an update’s popularity. But you don’t really notice them until you look for them specifically. Grosser found much the same: "By taking away the numbers, I realized how prevalent they were before, scattered throughout the interface acting as subtle but relentless cues of effect." Of course, it’s hard to believe that the intention behind those cues was nefarious. I imagine the like feature was designed as a virtual stand-in for laughing at someone’s joke, or even simply nodding in approval during a conversation, not currency for establishing some sort of high-school-cafeteria-style newsfeed pecking order. Yet Grosser deems these metrics "blunt instruments for understanding comprehension and reaction" and inadequate replacements for the "complex culturally produced protocols of interaction" we rely on in real-world conversations. Considering some of the feedback he’s getting, it’s hard to disagree with him completely.
In working on the extension, Grosser told me, he became more attuned to metrics of all types, especially in the media’s endless obsession with polling data in coverage of the upcoming election. In politics, of course, these metrics are essential for strategy. But the example does drive home Grosser’s greater point: On Facebook, there’s no way for my second cousin to see that I’m shaking my head in disgust at his misinformed libertarian baloney. He just sees "3 likes."
[Image: Facebook via Shutterstock]