The Illinois Artist Behind Social Media’s Latest Big Idea

Instagram and Twitter are removing the numbers of likes and retweets from public view. But it began with a man named Ben Grosser.

Since 2012, an Illinois-based artist named Ben Grosser has been exploring how numbers — the number of likes on a post, the number of friends or followers you’ve amassed — shape the experience of using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. To anyone who would listen, he has espoused the view that those numbers, known as metrics, mold our online behavior in ways deeper and more insidious than we realize — and that we’d all be better off without them.

Seven years later, in a very different era for social media, the world’s largest tech companies have themselves begun experimenting with what Grosser calls “demetrication.” Twitter rolled out a beta app in which reply threads no longer display the number of likes, retweets, and replies on each tweet, unless you tap on it specifically. Instagram announced last week that it’s expanding a test that goes much farther, hiding the number of likes and video views on every post in your feed. You can still see how many people liked your own posts, but the move will remove any possibility of comparing the numbers on your own beach selfie to your friend’s (or frenemy’s). And YouTube opted in May to replace real-time subscriber counts on its channels with rounded estimates.

Grosser’s ideas, initially fringey and obscure, have gained traction over the years among tech critics and garnered mainstream press coverage. The CEOs of both Twitter and Instagram have articulated their rationales in terms that evoke Grosser’s critiques, noting how the visual prominence of like and follower counts can encourage people to treat the platforms like a competition. Even Kanye West has become an advocate of hiding metrics on social media.

Yet Grosser himself has gone unrecognized and unmentioned by the big Silicon Valley tech firms, even as they begin at last to incorporate fragments of the ideas that he has been propounding for so long. “It’s certainly been a strange ride to watch the ideas emerge in the public consciousness,” he said in a phone interview. After years in which it felt like he was shouting “demetrication” into the void, “It’s a bit disorienting to see everyone from Jack Dorsey to Kanye West to now Instagram talking about it.”

It’s a study in how a critique of technology that’s ahead of its time can be ignored for years, then suddenly catch fire in Silicon Valley when circumstances shift — and companies that once dismissed it find it in their interest to espouse. Whether they’ve actually taken it to heart is another matter.

Courtesy of Ben Grosser

Grosser was an artist, programmer, and graduate student at the University of Illinois in 2012 when he started reflecting on some of the queasier aspects of his relationship with Facebook, such as the way he found himself judging his posts by how many likes they received. “I started realizing how obsessed I was feeling about those numbers, and wondering why was I having those feelings, and wondering, whom did those feelings benefit?”

He devised a browser extension that he called the Facebook Demetricator, which wiped all such visible metrics from the site, to see how different the social network would feel without them. It was a hybrid — an art project, a social experiment, and academic research — and he had no idea when he began that he’d still be maintaining and updating it seven years later.

Grosser’s ideas, initially fringey and obscure, have gained traction over the years among tech critics and garnered mainstream press coverage.

2012 was the year Facebook went public, acquired Instagram, and hit 1 billion active users. It was a time of optimism, growth, and excitement for the company; the scandals that would engulf it remained years away. Grosser’s tool, and its implicit critique of the mechanics of social media, gained little notice outside a few niche outlets, such as the art site Rhizome.

By 2014, Grosser — by then an assistant professor of art and design at the University of Illinois — had gleaned enough insights from his Demetricator, through his own use and feedback from other users, to publish a peer-reviewed paper about it in the online open-access journal Computational Culture. That prompted a handful of mainstream outlets to write about the Facebook Demetricator, some of which treated it as a novelty. (The tech blog BetaBeat rather unkindly dubbed it “Facebook for Unpopular People”). But the Atlantic took it more seriously, and it caught the eye of some of tech’s more influential thinkers, including danah boyd of NYU and Microsoft Research.

In 2016, Grosser got a notification that the Demetricator had been removed from the Chrome Web Store. He says it was due to a takedown request by Facebook. With the help of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, Grosser lobbied the social network to withdraw its complaint, but he says they never heard back. Google, which runs the web store, proved more responsive, and eventually restored the browser extension.

In 2018, with social media under scrutiny for its role in internet addiction, polarization, and election interference, Grosser released the Twitter Demetricator to a more receptive audience. David Zwieg wrote a feature about it for the New Yorker, as did I for Slate. The latter prompted a response from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who expressed interest.

In the months afterward, Dorsey mentioned on multiple occasions that he was rethinking the influence of visible metrics on Twitter, and even the existence of the Like button. The idea of ditching likes did not go over well with the platform’s loyal users, who are notoriously protective of its basic features even as they all seem to agree it’s a hellsite, and Twitter debunked an October 2018 report that it planned to do away with likes “soon.”

When the company released a beta test app this March, the Like button was still there. But it had disappeared, along with the Retweet and Reply buttons and their respective counters, from reply threads. The change forced users to tap a given reply if they wanted to engage with it or see how many others had done so.

“These companies have spent 10 years, 15 years conditioning us as users to focus on the metrics. And then they take that away with no easing us into it? Of course people are going to be disoriented.”

Instagram’s test came as more of a surprise. The Facebook-owned photo app confirmed in April that it was experimenting with hiding the number of likes on each post after a white-hat hacker discovered the code for the feature. Users could still view metrics for their own posts, but they became invisible to everyone else. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News the experiment was about “creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.” The app now seems to be moving swiftly in that direction: Last week Instagram expanded its test, which began in Canada, to six more countries (though not the United States).

An Instagram spokesperson told me the company’s idea to hide likes was not directly influenced by Grosser’s work. (In addition to his Facebook and Twitter Demetricators, Grosser had built an Instagram Demetricator in 2018, though it only works on the web, not the app.) While the spokesperson declined to elaborate, it does seem plausible that Instagram’s interest in demetrication has its origins elsewhere. Its main rival, Snapchat, famously eschewed conventional metrics from the outset, regarding like counts and algorithms as antithetical to its goal of allowing authentic, spontaneous expression. When Instagram copied Snapchat’s popular “Stories” format, it followed Snapchat in leaving out likes and public comments. Some former Facebook employees, including Sean Parker and Justin Rosenstein, have also suggested in recent years that the Like button and its associated metrics created unhealthy dynamics.

YouTube’s recent first foray into demetrication appears to have a more practical motivation. The video sharing platform said in May it will soon stop showing real-time subscriber counts in order to “create more consistency” in how they’re displayed in various settings. But the move was widely viewed as a response to the unseemly public battles between creators, such as the Swedish personality PewDiePie and the Indian channel T-Series, over who had more subscribers. YouTube declined to comment for this story.

Twitter was the only company of the three that tacitly acknowledged Grosser’s influence in response to my inquiries. Asked about whether the Demetricator had played any role in the company’s thinking, a spokesperson replied, “We always look at external experts, including researchers, to influence our work.”

As for the test itself, Twitter’s director of product management, Sara Haider, told OneZero in a statement that the goal was to “to see if this makes conversations easier to read and participate in.” So far, Haider went on, “We’ve received mixed feedback. While some people found themselves focusing more on the conversation as opposed to the metrics, others felt that the extra step to tap made it harder to like and retweet replies.”

Grosser said it’s been gratifying to see social media companies start to take seriously the downsides of visible metrics, whether as a result of his work or not. But he said he’s not surprised that they’ve gotten push back from users on their initial tests. “These companies have spent 10 years, 15 years conditioning us as users to focus on the metrics. And then they take that away with no easing us into it? Of course people are going to be disoriented.”

That doesn’t mean they should back off, he argues. On the contrary, Grosser believes the tests so far have not gone nearly far enough. Twitter hiding like and retweet counts in reply threads does nothing to change the dynamics of the main timeline, he noted, which is where most users spend the bulk of their time. Instagram’s test, which does hide like counts from users’ primary feeds, could do more to “blunt some of the competitive feeling these metrics produce,” Grosser said. But he noted that you can still see how many comments each post has, which could simply make comments the new metric by which people evaluate them. And as long as users can still see the like counts on their own posts, Grosser believes they’ll still judge themselves based on those numbers, and keep trying to drive them up.

All of which leads Grosser to wonder whether social media platforms are really trying to change the dynamics of online interaction, or just looking to demetrication as a public relations salve. “There’s a lot of pressure on these companies to do something, to have an answer when they’re up in front of Congress,” he said, referring to hearings in which Facebook and its rivals have been grilled on everything from their business models to their effects on democracy. “It feels a little bit like they’ve chosen one number to hide that allows them to say, ‘We’re working on this.’”

An irony in the tests, he added, is that Instagram and Twitter “are almost certainly using metrics to evaluate the effect of hiding metrics.” He said he’d love to know exactly what constitutes success and what constitutes failure for tests such as Instagram’s hiding of likes. He suspects that, for one thing, the company wants to make sure the changes don’t hurt its growth and engagement numbers too much.

The social media industry’s growing interest in demetrication is reminiscent of its embrace beginning in late 2017 of “time well spent.”. The phrase was popularized by Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who left the company in 2016 to co-found a nonprofit called Time Well Spent, which later became the Center for Humane Technology. The idea was that technology companies and social media platforms were optimizing for metrics such as user growth, engagement, and time spent on their sites, but not the value that users were deriving from them. That led them to create products that were calculated to be addictive, rather than useful or good for society.

It wasn’t long before Facebook adopted the phrase, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling time well spent “one of our big focus areas for 2018.” But Harris and his collaborators ended up feeling that Facebook had co-opted the idea, using it to justify strategic shifts that it wanted to make anyway. The critics’ own lofty ideas for how Facebook could remake itself as a more value-driven company seemed to resonate less with the company than their catchphrase.

It’s easy to envision a similar outcome for the demetrication trend. Platforms such as Instagram and Twitter seem to be earnest enough in their exploration of it, but the tentativeness of their tests suggests they’re looking to make a tweak here or there — not upend the entire premise of gamification, upon which their success was built. Meanwhile, the fast-growing China-based video-sharing app TikTok is going the other direction, adding more visible metrics as it gains ground on its American rivals. As the New York Times’ John Herrman points out, even when an app like Instagram hides public like counts, it’s still counting them internally, and using them to power its own algorithms and decisions. (Herrman is skeptical that demetrication will solve much.)

For social media titans, full demetrication would require a more radical abandonment of faith in data, and a disavowal of the numbers-driven “growth mindset” that has powered Silicon Valley for so long. Which is to say, it’s virtually unimaginable, except as a thought experiment — or maybe an art project.

Update: An earlier version of this article misidentified Twitter’s director of product management. Her name is Sara Haider.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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