It’s difficult to imagine social media platforms that don’t measure online clout and influence – numbers that signify “likes,” retweets, views, followers and more.
Since 2012, that scenario has been the focus of artist Ben Grosser, an arts and design professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He calls the concept “demetrication.”
It was then that he first released the Facebook Demetricator, a browser extension that hides metrics such as the numbers of “likes” on a post or a user’s number of online friends.
“I realized I was paying a lot of attention to how many ‘likes’ I got or how much my last post was commented on, perhaps more so than who liked it or what they’d said,” Grosser said. “Once I realized this, I started to ask questions: Why? Why do I care so much about these numbers? What is it about the numbers that are drawing my attention? What is that obsession doing to me? Is it changing my behavior? Who most benefits from this obsession?”
In 2014, Grosser published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Computational Culture exploring how Facebook’s interface of quantifying “likes,” comments and other metrics made users more dependent on the platform.
Two years later, Grosser says Facebook had his Demetricator plug-in removed from Google’s Chrome Web Store, apparently over a trademark claim.
Grosser argued fair use and teamed up with the digital rights nonprofit Electric Frontier Foundation, which helped him get the Facebook Demetricator reinstated in the brower’s web store.
Now Silicon Valley is experimenting with making metrics less visible: Twitter this year released a beta app hiding certain buttons and counters from reply threads; and Instagram recently announced plans to expand its test that hides the number of likes and video views on posts.
Grosser is wary of whether social media networks will permanently adopt his demetricator philosophy, mainly because it could limit the amount of time users spend online, impacting the bottom line of those platforms.
“It’s still very hard to pull ourselves away and that’s because they are designed to keep our attention – that’s how they were made and they’re very good at it,” Grosser said. “The presence of the metrics is one of the most essential components of that design: keeping us focused and keeping us scrolling.”
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