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…