My junior year of high school, we held student body elections.
This being the 1990s, the process was to have every candidate listed on a paper ballot and each student checking a box for their preferred candidates.
The day of the elections, a girl in my home room class was assigned with collecting the ballots. As we passed out papers up to the front of the room, she made an offhand but very accurate comment.
“This ain’t nothing but a popularity contest, that’s all.”
She was right. The most popular students predictably won the elections.
Social media platforms Twitter and Instagram have reportedly been testing removing vanity metric counts on elements such as likes, retweets and followers.
The logic is that the platforms are not supposed to be about the numbers; the people running the platforms claim the change would force users to focus more on the media — tweets and images — instead of how popular a post or person is.
It would also, they argue, help combat depression in people who judge their personal self-worth based on how many likes or followers they have compared to others.
While I am open to whatever experiments these platforms choose to implement, they should be fully aware that their platforms are no different from that election in 11th grade.
Social media is high school.
There are small cliques and groups that huddle around each other and gang up on anyone who doesn’t go along with their beliefs.
The most popular people’s messages get seen, heard and spread the most, regardless of the merit of what’s being said.
The outcasts who get ignored eventually fade into the wallpaper of the audience, merely following the lead of the most popular group.
In a high school lunchroom, popularity is the scoreboard.
How many people laugh at your jokes?
Who listens when you speak?
Do your ideas get co-signed?
On social media, vanity metrics are the scoreboard.
Likes and follower counts are votes: the more one has, the easier it is for me to decide to pay attention.
If someone can figure out how to hack the social media “election,” they can purchase credibility that they haven’t earned and use it.
While you may not agree with that, know that book authors (and publishers), politicians and influencers are doing it already. Those scoreboards mean a lot to people.
I’m not sure how hiding the numbers will change the dynamics of human nature.
It’ll be interesting to see if removing the scoreboard will change the way people play the game.
Something tells me that things won’t just become “fair” all of a sudden.
We’ll just find new ways to campaign for, cast, and show off our votes.
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