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The Vanity of New Metrics

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Digital metrics increasingly define us, creating a new way to value each other and ourselves. Big data, sensors and algorithms will fuel a new wave of vanity metrics that will further refine self-identity.

We got an early taste of this new digital vanity with Klout, Empire Avenue, PeerIndex and other influence metrics. But things are going to get worse (or better, depending on your perspective).

Consider the movement toward the Internet of Things and this week’s mega-acquisition of Nest. We are literally just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal data. We’ll be able to see how many times a day we open the fridge, and for how long. What are our peak grazing periods, and which products do we reach for the most?

That kind of data creates statistics, lots of them.

Suddenly, every aspect of our lives will become a sabermetric, giving us the chance to optimize our lifestyle. You can see this already with leaderboards and badges for social giving, fitness apps, and more.

Performance will become a mantra for some more competitive and vain people.

It’s not hard to envision endless chatter at the coffee shop, the water cooler and the bar about how life is better thanks to xxx [data-drive] app. Even more amazing, will be the discussions about how xx is in the 95th percentile of powersavers in the neighborhood.

Impact

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Now look, some people will take this more seriously than others, but we all know what a good portion of top performers do…

They put stickers on their car, “My Child is an Honor Roll Student.” Or badges on their blog. Or ribbons on their social network profile. Or include it in their bios. Whatever the statistic may be, we will hear endlessly about it from the more competitive and vain types.

Let’s be clear. The need to measure one’s performance — and in the most shallow and vain examples one’s self worth — existed well before Internet life. Consider school grades, attendance reports, boy and girl scout badges, colored belts for martial arts, etc. But in many of these cases we rewarded achievements.

Now we will reward arcane personal statistics.

In business, this metric based reality is inescable. The bottom line on any outcome measured by data is a merciless judge who has no defining characteristic other than success or fail. The application of metrics is the ultimate judge of any business person.

Marketers who value freedom and qualitative success above metric performance are having a hard time of it in this world where data drives everything. As Avinash Kaushik said this week, no one wants to hire a reporting squirrel. And can you blame companies? We know precision exists, and now brands are demanding it.

Are You a Metric?

The real concern is that we are conditioning ourselves to value statistical vanity and shallow egotism. The attention economy demands it. The proliferation of performance-bragging will become more and more commonplace. Welcome to the new rat race for many insignificant badges.

We see today’s conversations about self esteem and image, from the Dove Real Beauty campaign to online self worth to bullying conversations. Forthcoming vanity metrics will bring many new questions:

  • How are we going to deal with self image when so many people tie it to a metric?
  • How do you grapple with social climbers who will throw you under the bus in favor of appeasing the sensor or algorithm?
  • How will impact be defined in the future? Touching and changing people’s lives or breaking records in arcane communities that relish niche statistics?
  • What will we write on our gravestones in 50 years, a top ranked blogger who achieved a 16.7% lifetime share rate, or writer?

I don’t know about you, but I have many fears about this next wave of technology. Why? Consider how we as a species embrace technologies on a sociological level. Humans tend to adpat technologies blindly on hopes of achieving promised benefits. We rarely consider societal impact.

We’re already grappling with the ugly from social, and now we will see the ugly side of data metrics. While society will reap the economic benefits of data, expect shock from individuals and communities who are dismayed by the coming wave of metric-based vanity.

What do you think?

Featured image by Jo. Boy scout badges image by torbakhopper.

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  • Matt LaCasse

    Call me old school, but this is the exact same problem baseball is struggling with. Can numbers tell the whole story? In both cases, I think the answer is no. Looking the “final score” doesn’t tell you the ebb and flow of the game that preceded it. If you only pay attention to the numbers, you’ll miss the whole story, and that’s what we as communication pros (and baseball fans) need to realize. I think numbers help provide a better understanding of what’s happening, but I agree with you Geoff. The numbers should not define everything.

    • geofflivingston

      I agree. The numbers can be very helpful. The marketing of the numbers can go too far, at least in the human mind. I just don’t know if we have the perspective to handle them.

      • Matt LaCasse

        Could be laziness. People want the numbers to do the work of interpretation for them.

  • http://www.kaarinadillabough.com Kaarina Dillabough

    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Einstein

    • geofflivingston

      That is an awesome addition to the conversation.

      • http://www.kaarinadillabough.com Kaarina Dillabough

        Thanks: you know I’m a fan of brevity :)

  • http://womeninbusinessradio.com Michele Price

    My question is – why does it have to be either or? For too long I have observed people feel they need to pick a side.

    What if we saw the value of both and then evolved?

  • jimmy

    As an Eagle Scout, my opinion is that the training helped me prepare for life and its challenges. Ultimately all the merit badges and things I earned in the BSA helped me develop my code. Although my days of boy scouts are long ago, many of things I learned in scouts I use in my daily walk.

  • http://willhull.com/ Will Hull

    I just posted some thoughts on this topic on my own blog at http://willhull.com/nonprofits-and-big-data/

    In my opinion, the search for data must yield an outcome that is both meaningful and relevant to the person doing the measurement. In my case, I relate this to the nonprofit sector. Rather than just producing a statistic to produce one, one must ask themselves why they are beholden to that measurement.

  • Lawrence Ampofo

    Thanks for your article on this. I’ve been writing for years about how misleading it is to rely on a simple score to determine the complexity of life and humanity that we are increasingly able to capture through data. People working in this field will seriously have to think creatively about the best and most meaningful way to represent complexity in the digital age. I believe that the ‘Vanity of New Metrics’ can be bought into balance with more ‘Wisdom’ in how data is analysed.

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