The power of numbers that measure (social) performance

In number games and social software, dana boyd observes how we sometimes get obsessed with numbers that represent our performance—think game scores or, in her example, increasing miles per gallon while driving an hybrid car. The effect on our behavior can be even more powerful when these measures are socially determined as for the popularity score on Consumating and—why not?—blog ranking on Technorati.

danah boyd

And then i was thinking about the people on Yahoo! Answers who spend hours every day answering questions to get high ranks … There’s no real gain from getting points but still, it’s like a mouse in a cage determined to do well just cuz they can.

The internet is giving us a sort of social nerd paradise. We can actually measure our popularity with a number that everybody can see, rather than having to rely on fuzzy and contradictory social feedback.

As passionate as we are in debating the validity of the algorithm producing that number (how much electronic ink has been wasted discussing the “fairness” of Technorati ranking?), it’s reassuring to know that these measures of social status are calculated uniformly across the social space and even more reassuring that we can influence them. Now, we can compare ourself to others and find our objective place in the social space.

The social number game makes us feel in control. Even when we don’t feel like playing it (“I love the fact that it’s a lot of cool geeky people but i can never get over the lameness that i feel when i log in and look at my score. And yet, i can’t be bothered to answer the questions that make me feel all uncomfortable in the hopes that someone will like my answers and rate me higher,” dana writes of Consumating), we know that we still could influence the number if we participated in the game.

When we do play the game and we experience our ability to influence our social score, the game becomes addictive. The immediate and objective feedback of control on our social environment is almost impossible to resist. I can hear my friends say: “I hate wasting so much time on consumating, but I cannot help it.” If you stop, your social score starts to fall and all your efforts have been wasted. It feels very much like those lab mice that danah mentions in her post.

It seems that hidden out there there is a good lesson for traditional businesses to learn. Find objective or socially distributed performance measures (this is difficult but it can be done, even for knowledge workers). Let people own their performance score. Let them know how it’s measured and how it can be influenced. Make these measures sensitive enough and updated frequently so that your employees can have immediate feedback on the effect of their actions. It will give them a sense of control and allow them to learn what work and what doesn’t.

What we all crave is control on how we are perceived and evaluated, the ability to improve, and some kind of recognition for our efforts. Is not that difficult, guys.

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One thought on “The power of numbers that measure (social) performance

  1. Hello Antonella! How true this is. I spend an unGodly amount of time evaluation numbers. Not just for a living but with various stat counters and link searches via Technorati. I truly am trying to find my place in the social network of blogging. Sometimes I feel like I’m just blindly navigating the maze or shouting into a forest full of trees; at those times I go to the analytical tools and check my recent visitors. Seeing the numbers makes me feel better and I suppose I’m judging myself based on those numbers. I wonder if that’s a good thing? Am I going to lose my authenticity by playing to the numbers? I hope not.

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