One late night in freshman spring, I sat staring at a spreadsheet full of random numbers that apparently described my spending habits and moods that semester. My writing seminar was called “Your Life in Numbers,” and for our Dean’s Date assignment, we had to capture some aspect of our life in numbers. It turns out that retail therapy is real, and that I spent a lot more money on days that I was sad. Albeit, it was mostly on snacks from the U-store, so maybe that makes me more of an emotional eater than spender.
Honestly, for a writing seminar project, I controlled for very few variables and could gauge little about myself by looking at the disjointed numbers. Yet, I still came to many conclusions about myself and my habits — primarily that, when we see numbers about ourselves, or about people we know, we are quick to make snap judgements with insight into neither their circumstances nor our own.
That is exactly what happens on social media every day, and it is why a social media experience devoid of popularity metrics would be healthier for us.
We scroll past posts mindlessly, assuming that people with more likes or comments are more likable and have more exciting lives. In the same vein, if we get fewer likes than we deem normal (based only on the metrics we get from seeing others’ posts), we make assumptions about ourselves.
We question if the contents of our post lacked humor, or if there is something about ourselves that makes us less likable than others. In reality, we know nothing about what users were thinking when they scrolled past our post — odds are they probably have no explicable reason for not liking our post in the same way we can barely explain why we like certain posts and pass on others.
Users who have switched to a metric-free social media experience have reported higher levels of engagement with the content and quality of posts they like and share, actually understanding why they like something. Benjamin Grosser, associate professor of new media at the University of Illinois, created the Twitter Demetricator in 2018. The browser extension strips all numbers, from likes and retweets to follower counts, from users’ Twitter feeds. Those with the extension enabled have reported a freer and calmer Twitter experience, wherein they judge a post and its “likeworthiness” based on its substance rather than how many others have liked it.
David Zweig, one of the first users to test the Twitter Demetricator, reported feeling free of the implicit anxiety that comes with using social media. Most of us are insecure, and technology companies play on those insecurities by creating a numbers game wherein we addictively seek validation through likes and comments. The resulting paradox is that the same platforms designed to connect us through information-sharing lead to an increasing disconnect with information and an overwhelming fixation on the metrics validating it.
Instagram has experimented with a numbers-lite version of the app in several countries, including Canada, Australia, and pockets of the United States. While psychologists suggest that this has positive effects on youths’ mental health, social media influencers have complained that engagement with their content has weakened. Nonetheless, numbers of brand and marketing requests sent by businesses to Instagram influencers have not shown a decline yet, even though likes and comments have decreased on their posts.
It might appear to some that taking away influencers’ ability to engage with their followers would weaken activism or the ordinary person’s opportunity to emerge as a voice that can inspire others. I believe, though, that a distilled process of assessing the merit of posts encourages influencers to be more thoughtful regarding the content they produce rather than falling back on accumulated network effects that allow them to garner engagement by numbers, with users liking content simply because it is liked by many others on many occasions.
In a pandemic-wrought world where most of us are stuck indoors, with the majority of our interactions being conducted via social media platforms, it is all the more important to foster real connection online. A numbers game is detrimental to our mental health, especially in a year where distance and isolation have become a social duty.
Princeton, in particular, is not only full of youth that engage with social media more frequently than any other age group, but it is also host to an unspoken gamification of social life given the existence of bicker-based eating clubs. An underclassman is given no choice but to worry about how many upperclassmen they know, what extracurricular affiliations they have, and how large their social network is. Taking a moment to just step back, and think about what we actually care about, rather than what we should care about in order to be liked, would be hugely beneficial to members of the Orange Bubble.
Thus, it’s time that we “demetricate” our social media, and give people some headspace to define their own values and self-worth.
Khadijah Anwar is a junior in the Economics Department from Dubai, UAE. She can be reached at email@example.com.