If I have learned anything from the Internet, it is this: be very, very careful when you put a number next to someone's name. Because people will do whatever it takes to make that number go up.
– Jeff Atwood, Because Reading is Fundamental
Jeff Atwood's quote above has been fused into my brain since he first wrote it almost eight years ago. And it ended up there because I saw myself so vividly in that statement.
Let me explain.
Before the era of Facebook, Reddit, and other social media sites, bulletin board forums were king. Even in the pre-browser age of the internet, dial-in BBS's were fairly common fixtures. Either by word-of-mouth or searching using one of so many search engines (MetaCrawler, anyone?), you'd stumble across one of these forums and chat with other people about whatever topic that forum focused on. These were not massive sites run by corporations, but instead small pop-up shops, usually run by a single person.
Next to every post, you'd always see three pieces of information:
- The user's nickname/moniker
- The user's join date
- How many posts that user made on that forum
For avid forum users, those last two points – their join date and the number of posts they had made – were points of personal pride: the former, not directly controlable, as a means of showing how close to the "in crowd" you were, the OG community members; the latter, directly controlable by you, as a matter of flexing your imaginary internet points.
A large number of posts was synonymous with being a bigger fish in the pond. Higher number, bigger fish. It was that simple.
Perhaps, when the first forum added this data point, it was purely as an interesting statistic. We'll never know. But what we do know is that it turned into a psychological tool to encourage forum participation, because more posts meant a more popular forum, which meant more people would hopefully sign up, which meant more posts.
Our entire world is obsessed with making numbers go higher. More money in the bank account. More medals and awards. More followers. More likes on that tweet you just sent out. More engagement. (And yes, if you're a golf player you want your score to go lower, but the same concept applies). It's gone so far that creator Matt D'Avella created a browser extension through his company Slow Growth, which hides these kinds of statistics on YouTube. If you're a saavy user of an adblocker, most have the ability to add your own rules (there's nothing stopping you from marking the view counts as ads, for the record).
I'm no stranger to this struggle either. I look at the analytics for my blog. There's an innate desire to have more people read this, to get more pageviews, to have more mailing list subscribers. But to what end? What do I really get out of that? There's no ads on any of my content and I have no plans on monetizing. All I get is a number going up. That's it.
And yet, I still want that number to go higher. I can't help it.
The next time you see a number somewhere, it may be worth thinking about why it's there what that number is making you think, and what that feeling is encouraging you to do.