Proxies for Popularity

We didn't spend much time counting friends before the rise of social networks. Now, that number is part of our public identity. Profile boxscores quantify our performance and make it easy to compare.

Every photo and thought we share online, from the perfect brunch to a deeply personal essay, has a number attached to it. We're told that what matters is how many people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it.

Higher numbers serve as a proxy for popularity and sometimes, value.

When shown a set of numbers, we can be counted on to find ways to make them go up. These services thrive on our efforts to attract more friends and followers and increase the number of people who see and share our contributions.

My son recently completed his first semester of college. He attends a small liberal arts school where students receive narrative evaluations from professors instead of grades.

I didn’t know what to think about that until he shared his first evaluations. Each page summarized the course and traced his work and development from the first class to the last. The notes included thoughtful reflections on strengths and weaknesses, followed by recommendations for future study. Absent a value and scale, these evaluations strip away the ability to compare with others. Only after reading these personal, helpful essays did I realize how much a grade fails to capture, like a Wikipedia plot summary that leaves out the story.

There's a place for counting and competition, but not within the bonds of community and friendship.