What’s with all the numbers on social media?

Likes? Follower counts? Subscriber counts? Why is this information available to us? Better yet, why is it thrown in our faces as an integral part of the social media experience? Knowing the number of people that have liked a post, are subbed to a channel, or that a person has as friends are irrelevant to my experience on almost any app. When I sat and thought about it for a second, there’s almost no (obvious) point to publicly displaying these statistics.

Below the surface, I’m sure that a major reason that social media companies provide this information is because it drives engagement. People care about numbers, even if they aren’t their own. These numbers can even influence people to behave or think differently; i.e assigning different levels of value to content or people with higher ‘numbers’.

In other words, these features merely take advantage of certain human biases and behaviors. When I realized this, I was reminded of the many talks that Jaron Lanier has given regarding the ‘true’ nature of social media (specifically the companies).

Lanier used to work in Silicon Valley, and was driven away by social media companies’ incessant need to manipulate users’ behaviors and collect their private data to create increasingly personalized algorithms.
When I thought about the effect all of these different ‘numbers’ have on us, I realized exactly what Lanier was talking about.

If social media sites didn’t show us these numbers, we simply wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t exist to us. We might be curious, but we’d know by design that we just couldn’t see them.

I can remember first making a YouTube account in 2005. The site was much more bare-bones then, and comment sections were just that. Comment sections. They weren’t that interesting, and they weren’t the toxic warzones or joke competitions that we have now.

YouTube homepage in 2005.

OF COURSE people were toxic in comments back then, but there were no direct comment replies or anything to easily facilitate audience conversation.

Now, it’s mind-blowing that it’s almost instinctual for some of us to immediately scroll to the comment section of a video before viewing it.

Hell, some people might even pause a video just to take the time to browse the comments first.

Obviously, changes to YouTube comment sections were made in order to facilitate more interactions, making people spend more time on the site, which is obviously good for YouTube. But is it good for us? Has anyone had a life-changing revelation or discovery through YouTube comment sections? On top of that, why have we been given the ability to rate other peoples’ comments? This is a feature that’s common on many websites, not just YouTube. But in this case, sit feels like a sneaky way of manipulating us into interacting with the site in just one more way.

These days, most comment sections on YouTube are flooded with people trying to achieve a high number of ‘likes’. Be it by telling a joke, criticizing the original poster, or sharing a personal anecdote, this trend is apparent on nearly any video. It’s a strange phenomenon, because again, the focus should be on the videos. But the dopamine rush of having hundreds and thousands of people virtually acknowledge your words is apparently a greater reward than any. Next, as others have joked, we’ll be able to ‘like’ someone’s ‘like’.

2006 Twitter.

Something similar also happened to Twitter. Timelines used to be filled only with the most recent status updates from people that you followed. Over time, Twitter added more and more features that were nothing more than cheap ways to keep people glued to the app and engaging with one another. First was the ability to see ‘top’ tweets on your timeline rather than most recent ones.

This feature was optional, but it was a pretty big deal since one of Twitter’s distinctive features was how ‘up-to-date’ it constantly was.

More features followed, but slowly: showing you what certain followers of yours are ‘liking’, adding ‘topics’ that you can follow, and other features that centered around placing content on your feed that you didn’t elect to see.

Now, when you open Twitter, you’ll be lucky if 2/10 of the first tweets you see are from people you’re actually following. Twitter took it upon themselves to analyze our interactions and the way that we engage with the site so that they could pollute everyone’s timelines with what they THOUGHT we might want to see.

Honestly, that idea has some crazy implications. It would mean that Twitter algorithms are made with the intent to know us better than we know ourselves, by literally showing us a curated feed of what they think we might want to see. Of course, all of these features are meant to drive engagement too, as now people are communicating with accounts and tweets they would have never otherwise seen.

I’m not trying to denounce these apps or features as particularly evil or nefarious, but I want to take an honest look at what these sites are and what kind of interactions they’re facilitating. I think the companies behind these apps are shady and greedy, but probably not any more so than any other. They just have new tech that enables them to be shady and greedy in new ways.

Giving people more thumbs to click or more tweets to reply to isn’t evil, but it’s certainly a very subtle way of manipulating people and their behavior. Even here on Medium, it’s quite ridiculous that I can go to someone else’s article, and view the back-and-forth argument between an author and a commenter, two commenters, and what have you. I truly think that such engagements should ONLY be visible to the author, as, again, having such things be publicly visible does nothing more than drive engagement. It’s a lazy way of keeping people on your site longer. The reason I think this trend is important to keep an eye on is because it clearly illustrates the point that these tech companies are still companies- they never wanted to create user-friendly, non-addictive products.

These companies aim to create products and services that will keep us engaged- nothing more. They aren’t interested in facilitating positive, genuine human experiences. Jaron Lanier had an excellent quote regarding this topic, which was something along the lines of:

“We live in a world where if two people wish to communicate over the internet, the only way that can happen… the only way it’s financed.. is by a third party who believes that those two people can be manipulated in a sneaky way.”

Rather than host spaces for human connection, these sites have created new ways of socializing. They’ve completely changed our perspective on social dynamics, and have already fundamentally changed the way that so many people behave, think, and interact with others. I think it’s dangerous to think of these spaces as analogous to real-life interactions or conversations, because they couldn’t be more different. Lonely people can find solace online when speaking with others, but doing so will never replace face-to-face interactions, nor should we expect it to.

We should expect social media companies to do what they need to do to make mountains of money. We’ve forgotten that the focus of social media should be two humans speaking to one another. Not giant, unmoderated group conversations, not comment sections, and not constant status updates. These sites have made us socially lazy, and have digitally commodified so many beautiful aspects of real conversations. The genuine joy you feel when discussing a topic with someone else is reduced to a ‘like’, and someone you’ve known since childhood is now your ‘follower’. These online spaces we’ve become so accustomed to using are just….. strange. They’re unfamiliar. They have no basis in real human interaction, but instead have tricked us into socializing in new and more inconsequential ways.

Social media taught us to care about stupid things that we wouldn’t normally grant a fleeting thought. The word “social” in the term social media only refers to the fact that these spaces wouldn’t exist without some degree of socialization — our conversations and ideas are the media. When we use social media, we’re mostly just consuming media. But because we can do so alongside millions of other people, browsing a site like Twitter or TikTok feels more social than it actually is.

I don’t like socializing in the ways that these websites facilitate anymore. I think that a ‘good’ social media site is certainly possible, but as of now, I would rather be bored than have my conversations, thoughts, and friendships bastardized and commodified by tech giants. I think we should re-consider what these sites actually do for us, and whether or not they’re really serving us or vice-versa. Maybe we shouldn’t be consuming this specific media in such a way that it can so subtly and easily manipulate us.

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A.Alphonso

A.Alphonso

full-spectrum nerd and native californian