As I was walking the streets of Evanston, Illinois on Friday night, a group of kids passed me by. As we were passing each other a voice shouted out, “God d–n you’re short!” Now, in the overall scheme of the universe, this inarticulate and really idiotic proclamation is less than a crumb in significance, but the fact is that people make these kinds of statements to other people all of the time. “Why are you so short?” “Why are you so tall?” “Why are you so fat?” “Why are you so darned thin?” All of these questions and mockeries revolve around our society’s obsession with numbers. There is a range of “normal” (although I’m not sure what that range is, per se) that you can fall into for height, weight, even body mass index. If your number is too big or too small, you will very likely encounter people who will point this out to you.
There’s no question, certainly, that things are moving fast these days. People want shortcuts for everything, including the analysis of other people. By looking at those numbers – height, weight, number of freckles, number of pimples – people can quickly sort you into interesting or … something else. The problem, of course, is that people are much more than just those numbers. I am more than a person who happens to be smaller than the average bear. You are more than whatever external characteristics you present in your everyday life. By judging people based on numbers, we miss a universe of interesting things about people.
In the online world, the same logic applies
Daria Giron (aka @mominmanagement) asked me to write a post this month about what the numbers mean in Social Media. After all, we’ve got a lot of numbers to think about, don’t we? I mean, just as a blogger, you worry (probably) about your traffic number, your bounce rate number, the number of comments you get, the number of retweets you get, and your number of subscribers. On Facebook we worry about the number of “likes” we get on a company page. In Twitter-world, it’s about the number of followers you have. And already, in Google Plus, people are worrying about how many people have circled them. There are Klout numbers, Peer Index numbers, Alexa rating numbers. We’re literally surrounded with numbers.
Just like in the offline world, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation of making snap judgments about people just based on their numbers. People are even starting to make hires based on Klout scores. In my experience, though, numbers are as distracting in the online world as they are in the real world. They distract you from the actual quality of a person because you’re so busy evaluating various issues of quantity. I have noticed, for example, that a lot of Twitter accounts that have over 10,000 followers are some of the least engaging I encounter. Accounts that maybe have 200 followers are all over the place, reaching out to people and trying to help out. People who don’t even know what Klout is may do a job 1,000 times better than someone who has a Klout score of 75. But the numbers make it easy. They summarize a person, if you will. They help you sort people faster. But what are you risking with that short cut?
Don’t judge yourself by the numbers, either
Of course, the onus of looking past the numbers doesn’t just rest on other people. In life and in the online world, you need to remember that numbers are just a part of the story. You have to make sure that while the numbers may be woven into the story you tell, they don’t end up taking over your entire story and directing it in ways you may not want to go.
If I wanted to, I could surrender into the utter exhaustion that represents being a little person in this world. But I make sure that I don’t let that part of my story become the sum total of my being. If you’re a little heavier than you want to be, it may be easy to feel like you’re just alienated from the rest of the world. But there’s more to you than that number. If you’re taller than the average person, skinnier than the average person, it can be easy to fixate on that and let that become your nametag, if you will. “Hi, I’m me and I am abnormal.” Don’t let YOURSELF label you that way.
Similarly, the destructive temptation in the online world is to say things like, “Oh gosh, I only have 150 Twitter followers. I just am not getting anywhere.” Or maybe you think, “Oh man, I never get any comments on my blog. I must be a bad writer.” These numbers are really not instructive though in the greatest sense of the word. You need to look for the full story. Sure, maybe you have 150 followers, and maybe there are people who have a lot more than that. Have you ever looked at those accounts that have tons and tons of followers? You’ll be shocked at how many eggs you see in the avatar pictures. How many spam bots you see who are just gravitating toward that big presence. Your 150 starts to look pretty good. Maybe you’re not getting a lot of comments but a lot of people are linking to your posts. That’s still great!
To me, numbers are weighted far too much in our lives – online and offline. The stuff that really matters, like love, companionship, the soul…those can’t be weighed or measured, and to me, that’s instructive of how we should look to interact with people and how we should judge our own selves. It’s easy to assign a number to someone, and it’s quick. But you lose an awful lot in the translation.
What do you think?
Image by Gabriella Fabbri. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/duchesssa