Kanye West has tweeted some incredibly, let’s say, confounding things in the past. He has. It’s true. In May, he tweeted a bookmarked search for, among others, Tomi Lahren. There was that time he, in all caps, proclaimed Bill Cosby’s innocence. The list goes on. But what’s that they say about a stopped clock? It tweets insightful things every so often? Today, I found myself reading Kanye’s feed and nodding sagely.
This morning, Twitter users could find West waxing poetic about the fact that social-media platforms (specifically, Twitter) prominently display the number of followers a given user has. “This has an intense negative impact on our self worth,” West wrote. Social platforms, he argued, should give users the option to not publicly show their follower count or the level of engagement — likes, retweets, faves — on their content.
Are there merits to metrics? Sure. Of course. Follower and like counts can help approximate credibility: The accounts that many Twitter users deem worth following are more likely to be credible. But there are many exceptions to that rule — super-viral accounts with millions of followers and crap content. And most of us aren’t boasting follower counts in the millions and retweet counts in the hundreds of thousands anyway. Instead, we play a calculation game, tweeting for our small audiences and watching — and hoping — our various numbers go up. And when you really stop to think about that … it’s a weird, potentially damaging, way to live.
West also tweeted an Instagram video he filmed of a clip of Denzel Washington advising “young people” to “turn off” social media. “We all want to be liked,” Washington says. “But now we want to be liked by 16 million.”
Metric-free social media isn’t a new concept. Ben Grosser, a professor of new media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and artist, created an extension earlier this year called the Twitter Demetricator — an earlier version, the Facebook Demetricator launched in 2012 — which does exactly what West describes. It removes all follower and engagement counts and shows you only a user’s content. Which leaves you to judge that content purely on what you think of it, rather than what you think of it based on what your peers have indicated they think of it. “Without really meaning to, I’d been glossing over tweets that had relatively few likes and paying extra attention to those that had many. I had even subconsciously developed a sort of multiplier for various Twitter users based on the size of their followings, so that a tweet by a relatively obscure user that garnered 10 likes would stand out in my feed more than one by a famous user that got 100 likes,” Will Oremus at Slate wrote when he gave the extension a try. A 2014 academic study from Grosser described how his extensions “both reveals and eases these patterns of prescribed sociality, enabling a social media culture less dependent on quantification.”
Last year, Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, talked about building the platform in the early days to be a “a social-validation feedback loop … exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” engineered to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” He noted that Instagram’s Kevin Systrom employed that strategy in building that platform. Twitter, while not mentioned by Parker, clearly operates on a similar system.
Snapchat, by comparison, is perhaps the only major player in the social-media game without front-facing metrics — something that “Ben from Snapchat” certainly knew when he texted Kim Kardashian West letting her know he also liked West’s tweet on Thursday. (West Instagrammed, and then tweeted the Instagram, a photo of their exchange.) “Sooo agree,” Kardashian West replied to Snapchat Ben, a.k.a. Ben Schwerin, Snap’s vice-president of partnerships, who didn’t skip a beat in adding that West could “start a public Snapchat.” West did not Instagram a response from his wife, who, unlike her husband, has a public Snapchat account. (Which may or may not have played a role in revealing her location to the robbers who held her up at gun point in an apartment in Paris in 2016.)
Snapchat’s struggles to keep users engaged have been well-documented, so it’s entirely possible, and very likely, that this model, freeing as it might be, just isn’t sustainable. Plus, I’m not going to wall myself off in a metricless tower if everybody else I’m interacting with isn’t up there with me. Still … it’s nice to imagine a world where we all don’t have them. (At the very least, it offers a bit of a reality check about what fuels our online sharing behaviors.) Where you post a tweet purely because you thought you had something funny to say. Or share an article because you were genuinely interested in the content and not just what kind of person sharing that particular article labels you as. Or Instagram a picture purely because it was a photo that brought you joy. Maybe a friend tells you IRL they liked your photo. Maybe they don’t. And you don’t care one way or the other.
Thank you for reading. I’d appreciate it if you’d please tweet this story to all of your followers and email it to your family members who don’t have Twitter. Also post it on Facebook. And put the link in your Instagram bio.