what’s your number?

People have a ridiculous obsession with being measured. You want to make an online app that is an immediate success? Create a website that tells people their score for how beautiful their face is, their level of influence on the internet, or even the number of people who were born before them in all of human history. It doesn’t matter if any of these numbers are right, real, or can even be verified. For the most part, none of these applications measure anything that is actually measurable. But people don’t care: assign them a number, and they are happy!

Here is the most ridiculous offender that was making the rounds on social media recently: I go to a website that tells me, based on my birthday, that I was the 78,174,974,765th human being to be born in the world. Now, I know this is wrong, as should any person who visits the website. First of all, there were thousands of people all born on the same day as me, and they can’t all be the 78,174,974,765th. Second of all, we know intuitively that any idea of population growth rates in, say, the year 1000 B.C. are wild estimates at best. Even if you know the total population growth in a year (which you don’t), conditions back then were terrible enough that you don’t know how many babies were born but never made it past infancy. So your estimate of how many people were born throughout history could be halved or doubled each individual year, depending on your assumptions about mortality rates. Accumulate that “error margin” year over year for thousands of years, and you get an “error margin” in the millions (at least).

So even without giving it much thought, you know that (for example) the digit “5” on the very end of that long number is fictional. Honestly, probably the entire “765” portion of that number was produced by a random number generator. But how much more? How much of that number is based on a “rough estimate” and how much is completely made up?

The more accurate and responsible “output” of the website would be to say “just under one hundred billion people were born before you.” But that’s not cool. That’s not sexy. Instead, the website randomly tells you: you are the 78,174,974,765th human being to be born in the world. Yay! You know your number!

Klout is another currently trendy way of assigning a number to yourself. It’s an objective measure of how important you are. No, that’s not true: it’s an objective measure of how much influence you have in social media, although to read that way some of the fan-boys talk about this hot-and-trendy score you would think it was a measure of how likely you are to get blowjobs from a supermodel. In this case, the number is not random (making it a slight cut above the “what number human being are you by birth?” app), but it measures how many people watch you, respond to you, and copy the things that you do.

The big problem that I have with Klout is that it bills itself as a measure of influence when it is not… or at least, it is not by anything beyond a very simplistic and “technical” definition of the idea. Just because you created a video of your cat choking on a pretzel that 1,000,000 people viewed and shared doesn’t mean that you have influence in the world. It doesn’t mean that you can alter the way people think, except in the very naive sense that you can cause 1,000,000 people to think, “What a funny cat that is.” It does not mean that you can get people to believe things, or do things, and it does no mean that you can really have any impact at all on people’s lives or how society functions. It just means that you’ve created something that people are willing to parrot.

I wrote a previous blog post where I gave my opinions about what different kinds of influence there are in the world, and what kinds we should or should not think are important. But I’ll say it again here. If you want to base your self-esteem on a number that you are assigned that supposedly tells you how much “influence” you have, consider these things: do you have a holiday named after you? have you made people’s lives easier? have you started or ended a war? is there a religion based on your writings? have you changed the way people eat, or what their goals in life are? have you written a constitution or developed a political theory? If not, then STFU about your “Klout” score.

As a mathematician and statistics guy, things like this bug the hell out of me. I do not lie. People tell me “it’s just a game” and that “nobody takes it seriously” and ask “what’s the harm in it?” But the fact is, as “innocent” as its intentions are, it doescause harm.

It causes harm because it conditions people to think of statistics as made up, for one thing. The more often people are exposed the “measures” that are presented as “scientific” but that they know are actually fictional, the more easy it is to get them to dismiss statistics altogether. Then, you have scientific studies that come out with some result that they don’t want to believe, and it becomes so easy to just call upon that inner voice that has been trained by the internet: “Oh, it’s just a number, who believes them anyway?”

It also causes harm because it mis-represents what science and mathematics can and can’t do. It comes across to the average person as if Scientists (some abstract collection of people “out there”) really do think that they can measure something like “the influence a person has in the world.” The common person then can have one of two reactions: they can realize that science really can’t measure these things, and decide that scientists are not trustworthy; or they can believe that science can measure these things, and adopt it wholesale, believing that this thing called a “klout score” measures something more important than “how popular your pet cat videos are.” Either one of these outcomes, in my opinion, is harmful.

 

And so, psychologically speaking, the really interesting question is: why do people like this kind of thing so much? Why does it make people feel good to be able to say “I was the 78,174,974,765th human being to be born in the world”? That would be an interesting subject for research.

But all in all, it just goes to show that the old saying, “I’m not just a number, I’m a human being!” is obsolete. People want nothing more, in this day and age, than to be completely defined by numbers… even if they are completely made up.

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  1. Jesse Wiedinmyer says:

    I'm reminded of Paulos (I think) who once pointed out that those people who complain that they're not just a number are more uniquely identified by their SSN than by their name in most cases.

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