Demetrification: improving social media by removing public like/follower/repost counts

When social media was young, it was obvious that it had some pathologies — perverse incentives that drove people toward antisocial behaviour. Back in those days, a company named Flickr did some radical things that made it (briefly) the best social network on the internet (until Yahoo bought it and all but destroyed it): among other things, Flickr did not publicly display follower or favorite counts, and it would allow you to export all of your data to any rival service, provided that the rival service would implement an export function that let you change your mind and switch back to Flickr, creating a kind of mutual network of anti-lock-in services.

(Flickr also implemented by favorite feature of all time: the ability to reply to email notifications of in-network private messages by replying in email, rather than visiting the website and typing your reply there. Yahoo killed this almost immediately following the acquisition).

The result was a service in which people participated in a gift economy of following and liking, not because of social signals that told them what was popular among their peers, but because of genuine affinity. You still got to know about it when people followed and liked your work, but unless you took the (unseemly) step of publishing those facts, no one else would. It was a beautiful, fragile thing.

Since then, social media has been overtaken by metrics, which are driven in large part by the vicious cycle of advertisers wanting to know which influencers are worth paying; and by toxic fan battles to make your favorite social media accounts gain followers and likes, and to downrank your favorites' rivals.

Paris Martineau writes in Wired about the fraught business of "demetrification" — hiding metrics on social media, and the problems this creates (despite the many benefits, it turns off some of the dopamine drips that users love, and they complain loudly as a result).

One issue that Martineau doesn't delve into is what happens when businesses (like advertisers and influencers) depend on metrics but don't trust (or can't see) the metrics they need: new businesses pop up to produce "neutral" third-party metrics. These intermediaries don't work for the service, or the people whose accounts are being metered, or even for advertisers, and often turn into sketchy data-brokers who capture more and more value while increasing the risks to everyone else.

On August 29, YouTube quietly updated its May blog post about the change to say it would now be introduced to users gradually in September, though it doesn't appear to have been implemented yet. The company also gave a different explanation for the reasoning behind the partial demetrication: user health.

"Beyond creating more consistency, ​this addresses creator concerns about ​stress and ​wellbeing, specifically around tracking public subscriber counts in real time," noted the update. "​We hope this helps all creators focus on telling their story, and​ experience less pressure​ about the numbers."

Phillips, the media manipulation researcher, says that demetrication, if done correctly, could improve online discourse. "Content creators suddenly wouldn't have an immediate gauge of what to do. And that could have a potentially interesting and unpredictable impact on people's brands," said Phillips. "The potential positive is that content creators who are dealing in conspiracy theori[es] and [extremism] would not themselves become more radical."

But she says it's highly unlikely that platforms will implement these features widely enough to make a noticeable difference—it would be bad for business.

Would the Internet Be Healthier Without 'Like' Counts? [Paris Martineau/Wired]