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Imagine social media without any numbers. No likes, no retweets, no comment and follower counts. You wouldn’t be able to tell how popular you were on Instagram, how many people were happy about your wedding on Facebook, or how many people were furious at you and wanted you to die on Twitter.

Would you feel confused and adrift, cut off from any sense of your own place in the social hierarchy? Or would you feel finally at peace, able to live in the moment and engage with each human being face to face, without preconceptions?

For most of the past 10 years, this vision would have seemed bizarre. Metrics — that is, numbers — have been fundamental to social media ever since the mid-noughties.

These metrics make it easier for social media companies to select and recommend content. But in recent months, two major networks and one big video site have taken baby steps towards just such a vision.

Last year The Daily Telegraph revealed that Twitter was considering removing “likes” in an attempt to improve the quality of debate, and this March it began testing a less dramatic version of that policy which hid likes and retweets unless users specifically click through to examine them.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, has also hinted that he is thinking about limiting retweets themselves, after the button’s designer Chris Wetherell compared it to “hand[ing] a 4-year-old a loaded weapon” for its power to whip up online mobs.

Meanwhile, Instagram is testing a feature which would hide all public numbers on likes and comments. Users will still be able to see metrics on their own photographs and videos, but won’t be able to see how many people have liked or commented on other users.

More on the topic

Finally, YouTube has decided to replace real-time subscriber numbers with vaguer rounded figures once they exceed 1,000, meaning a channel which used to show “4,227” subscribers will now show “4.2k”. These moves are a far cry from complete demetrication. But they do raise the question of why social networks, which for so long have marched steadily in the direction of more metrics, are now wavering — and what it would mean if they entirely reversed course.

“When we see a number that reflects our social interactions, it’s very hard for us not to want that number to be larger,” says Ben Grosser, an artist and professor at the University of Illinois whose work focuses on the cultural effects of software.

It was this “desire for more” that persuaded Grosser to build the work he is probably most famous for: a series of custom computer programs called “demetricators” which plug into Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and render all numbers invisible.

Demetricators

Demetricators allow people to experience what social networks would be like without metrics, and for frequent users the effect is disorienting — a sudden redundancy of purpose which is both liberating and alarming.

After launching the Facebook demetricator in 2012, and subsequent versions for Twitter and Instagram in 2018, he received a lot of feedback from users explaining their own troubled relationships with metrics.

“Although I didn’t choose to use the word ‘addiction’ in anything I wrote, a lot of people would,” says Grosser.

At the same time, some people felt paralysed or frozen because a lack of likes deprived them of information that they had unconsciously been using to guide their behaviour.”

It’s hard to say where such rules come from, but perhaps they are rooted in humanity’s deep past: we are more likely to do things if others do them because we feel that it will raise our status in the community.

Grosser’s findings are echoed by Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University and one of Britain’s leading experts on addiction. “My research has shown that particularly millennials get competitive about the number of likes,” he says.

“I can tell you now, my ‘screenagers’ see those numbers of likes and they want to beat them, they want to beat their friends. It’s a validation thing: if you’ve got 300 likes for a particular selfie you’ve just put up, that validates you in some way, whereas if you put something up and only three people like it that makes you feel depressed and puts you in a downer.”

It’s easy to see how these dynamics have contributed to social networks’ biggest PR problems. Without metrics, would parents be so worried about their children’s self-esteem or about the time they spend scrolling?

De-emphasising the metrics

Would political partisans have such intense, obvious motivation to play to the gallery and adopt the most extreme versions of their own positions? De-emphasising these metrics, then, is a natural part of Big Tech’s attempt to prove it is listening to its critics. The problem is that none of the features Twitter and Instagram are currently testing go anywhere near fully eradicating data that lets you know about your popularity — and for Prof Griffiths and Prof Grosser, they don’t go very far at all.

“This is just one little thing,” says Griffiths. “In and of itself, it’s not going to make a massive difference; but I do see it as a positive thing because I think it means that some people become less reliant on those kind of metrics. It takes away that competitive element.”

Grosser calls the Twitter experiment “extremely small”. Indeed, despite all their rhetoric about wanting to put users in control of their experience, no major social network even allows users to voluntarily hide their metrics. There are also many who oppose losing follower counts and likes. When Instagram began hiding likes in Australia, Mikaela Testa, a Melbourne-based influencer, posted a tearful video accusing the company of threatening her livelihood.

“It’s real money going down the drain,” she said. “I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into this for it to be ripped away.”

In the end, it may be that social media companies cannot abandon metrics because they themselves, with their mathematics-focused culture, have become addicted to metrics.

Grosser actually believes that a move to remove metrics might ultimately result in stable or increased profits, because users would feel more peaceful about their social networks.

Are we ready for a world without social media data on how popular we are? Grosser believes it would create a “more genuine space of social interaction” in which people are more able to judge each other’s words on their merits rather than looking to the numerical safety signals.

It could be a slower world, a calmer one, maybe one less vulnerable to trolls and information warriors. On the other hand, many people find it a culture shock to switch on. We would be, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “condemned to be free”, left alone with ourselves and each other to live as we think fit.

How many of us are ready to deal with that when we open our phones?

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019

Laurence Dodds is a tech reporter based in San Francisco