Today's Obsession: Popularity

One of my favorite old kitsch postcards, photographed by Emile Greco.

“Numbers make intangibles tangible,” said Jonah Lehrer, a journalist and author of How We Decide, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). “They give the illusion of control.”

This is so true. The New York Times ran an article a few days ago discussing the meanings of numbers, especially as it pertains to our motions online and with your money. In a nutshell: our numbers aren’t quantities, they’re rankings of our worth in our own minds. No wonder Facebook changed its primary social mechanism from “sharing” to “liking.”

It’s gotta be easier to rustle up numbers from a selfish social context than a generous one on a solo-piloted medium based on hunting instincts. On Facebook, your worth is based upon what you bring back to the campfire of your peer group. Considering peoples’ social nature, I would be interested to see how these same sorts of numbers would trend when social behavior’s removed from the equation.

If you think long and hard about that, it would change the underlying way advertisers measure their ads and the way site owners measure their traffic and make interface decisions. interesting notion for a design challenge, yes? I’d like to see that design brief: “Design for the web as if it doesn’t matter how popular we are.”

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