The use of self-tracking apps and devices is now so widespread that it is easy to overlook how much our thinking about ‘personal analytics’ is rooted in social web services. Urbana-Champaign-based media artist Benjamin Grosser’s most recent project, Facebook Demetricator, is a multi-browser plugin that recontextualizes Facebook’s interface by stripping out all mentions of quantity. Once ‘demetricated’ the number of likes, friends, comments, etc. are excised, resulting in a more neutral browsing experience where a user’s interactions are not influenced with the knowledge of how much engagement particular bits of content have received.
Several weeks ago, Grosser engaged in an extended interview about this work with Matthew Fuller this conversation reveals considerable insight about the thinking behind the project. Specifically, Grosser’s comments about what data is and isn’t shown to Facebook users are fascinating:
So what isn’t shown? Well, I’m not told how many things I like per hour, or how many ads I click per day, or how effective the ‘People You May Know’ box is in getting me to add more friends to my network. These types of analytics are certainly a significant element within the system, guiding personalization algorithms, informing ad selection choices, etc. But would showing these types of metrics to the user make them more or less likely to participate? If the answer is less then the metric is hidden.
While I imagine Nicholas and Felton and the Facebook product design team furrowing their brows at the prospect of an numberless interface, Grosser’s plugin highlights how quantity drives and inflects interactions. At this point, perhaps the only way to understand how we habitually read web services as ‘social scoreboards’ is to hide the data that we expect to be in plain site.
More information can be found on the Project page – those that install the plugin should note that Grosser is looking for feedback about how it alters browsing habits.