The red numbers that pop up on your Facebook when someone interacts with you are gratifying. They mean people like you! Or “like” something you did. Now new research shows that those numbers are part of the reason people are so addicted to the social network. You might have never thought about those notifications before, but it kind of makes sense that they’re drawing you in, right?
Ben Grosser, an artist and developer who studies how people interact with software, made a browser extension in 2012 called the Facebook Demetricator. It automatically removes the quantifications Facebook shows its users every day, things like how many friend requests they have or how many events they’re invited to that week.
“There were times when I was more focused on the numbers than the content itself,” Grosser told the Atlantic. “I realized every time I logged in I looked at those numbers. Why was I caring? Why do I care so much?”
The extension grew in popularity, and eventually more than 5,000 people were using it. So he took his analysis a step further and organized their feedback and his observations into a paper about the affect of numbers on Facebook user behavior, published Monday in the journal Computational Culture.
Grosser found that seeing the numbers makes users competitive with themselves about how many notifications they can rack up. It drives them to count interactions in a detailed way and to value things on Facebook based on how many likes, comments, etc. they have. It used to just be that having more Facebook friends made someone seem cooler, but it's clearly grown beyond just that.
In the paper, Grosser writes:
Metrics activate the “desire for more,” driving users to want more “likes,” more comments, and more friends. Further, the metrics lead users to craft self-imposed rules around the numbers that guide them on how, when, and with whom to interact. Facebook Demetricator, through its removal of the metrics, both reveals and eases these patterns of prescribed sociality, enabling a social media culture less dependent on quantification.
Facebook is careful to release statistics about its users in a controlled way. But the numbers Grosser is looking at are ones that are readily available all the time, and drive people to use the service in certain ways. As if there weren’t already enough social pressures lurking on Facebook.