Living Without Numbers
October 23, 2012
Here at Quantified Self we talk about living with numbers. Look a few inches above these words and it’s right there in our four-word tagline: self knowledge through numbers. Information, increasingly numerical information, is becoming a driving force in the world. We’re surrounded by numerical representations of ourselves in almost all aspects of our lives. Probably no more so than in our digital interactions with each other.
Those meaningful and mundane comments, retweets, posts, likes, scores, friends, and followers all have raw or algorithmically defined numerical value. What you think of those value isn’t as necessary as understanding that a value exists. This is the place where you would probably expect me to go on long diatribe about the nature of scoring our social lives, but I’ll leave that for others to handle. It’s a hot topic and I’m sure you’ll able to find well-written arguments with a quick google search. Instead I want to use this space to show you something interesting and thought provoking.
Ben Grosser is an artist and a composer, and is currently completing an MFA in New Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s also the creator of a nifty little piece of software called Facebook Demetricator. Simply put, the Facebook Demetricator is a browser extension that hides the numerous instances of social metrics that live in the Facebook interaction experience:
The Facebook interface is filled with numbers. These numbers, or metrics, measure and present our social value and activity, enumerating friends, likes, comments, and more. Facebook Demetricator is a web browser addon that hides these metrics. No longer is the focus on how many friends you have or on how much they like your status, but on who they are and what they said. Friend counts disappear. ’16 people like this’ becomes ‘people like this’. Through changes like these, Demetricator invites Facebook’s users to try the system without the numbers, to see how their experience is changed by their absence.
How does it work? Take a close look at the short gif below or watch this short explanatory video.
Ben did a great interview with Matthew Fuller that I highly suggest you read if you’re interested in learning more him and the reasoning behind this project. I preparation for this short post I emailed Ben and asked him his thoughts on how this fits into the broader conversation around Quantified Self:
I suppose a key difference between the metrics on Facebook and a more typical QS approach is that in QS one has substantial control over what they collect and how they interpret it. On Facebook, the what, how, and even in some cases, the why is largely left to the system to manage. In response, Demetricator removes the numbers and thus makes the familiar unfamiliar, focusing us on the ways those numbers are functioning as drivers of interaction. It’s not that the numbers themselves are bad, but they’re certainly worth questioning—especially when their accumulation and presentation are handled by others.
I’ve leave you with a few thoughts I’ve had on this as I’ve been contemplating this work and Ben’s response.
Numbers are powerful. Ben mentions in his announcement and again in the interview that one of reasons for creating this software was to combat the “(capitalism-inspired) innate desire for more.” Numbers have this seemingly magical evolutionary trait in that they seek to increase and we as creators and consumers of those numbers tend to oblige (I understand this isn’t true for all numbers). This isn’t a judgement statement, just something we need to be aware of as we build and interact with social and behavioral systems that are becoming increasingly quantifiable.
Mind the data. There are these great little inlaid signs in the London Underground that remind passengers to “mind the gap.” It serves as a simple warning to make people aware of the distance between the train and the platform. Being mindful or ourselves through the lens of the data we produce and use has been a recurring theme lately for some of us in the QS community. So much so that we opened up the QS Conference with a wonderful presentation by Nancy Dougherty on Mindfulness in QS. With the increasing scorification of our social interactions in various online mediums the Facebook Demetricator reminds us to be mindful of the role numbers play in our lives and how we choose to use them.
What do you think? Take a look at Ben’s project and if you use it let us know your thoughts. I’ve created a post on the Quantified Self Forum for discussion, but feel free to comment here as well.
Thanks for Ben Grosser and Alex Carmichael for providing feedback on this post. Also thanks to everyone (especially @xarodai) who uses the #quantifiedself hashtag on Twitter. Without you this unique tool would have never surfaced for me.