Sometime in the 1970s, the once ubiquitous gossip columnist Rona Barrett began reporting box office grosses during her regular appearances on Good Morning America. Prior to that, such statistics were available only to readers of Variety, long the entertainment bible (and perhaps to Hollywood Reporter readers as well, though as a teen I only knew of Variety). What she unleashed was a revolution in entertainment reporting, in which the general public began hearing about weekly grosses for the movies, detailed Nielsen television ratings, volume of record albums (later CDs and later mp3) sold weekly, even the Broadway box office grosses. Across the country, what was once industry information became popular fodder, so much so that the movies manage to get press out of projected box office tallies on Monday, actual receipts on Tuesday and projected receipts on Thursday and/or Friday. Entertainment became about “the numbers.” (Ironically, in this same period, as Variety shrank, Off-Broadway and regional grosses disappeared, even for those in the industry.)
A successor to this awareness came courtesy of Amazon.com, which hourly updates every book’s sales rank, and while the number is based on relative sales and does not reveal the actual count of books sold, it has proven fascinating as well. For authors of newly released books, it’s like crack. Ask anyone you know who’s had a book published. If they don’t admit to checking their Amazon numbers frequently, they’re lying.
But “the numbers” have taken an interesting turn in these burgeoning days of social media. First, it was simply how many friends we have on Facebook (thereby diluting the true meaning of the word ‘friend’ for much of the world), then how many followers we have on Twitter. Most social media platforms provide some comparable measure, and in doing so, set up a competition among users.
We’ve learned just today that the numbers can be gamed, for a while at least: Newt Gingrich’s million Twitter followers turned out to be highly inflated, as the vast majority of them proved to be fictitious accounts created solely to aid those who were collecting numbers across Twitter; others were bots that automatically follow people, often in an effort to get them to click on highly suspect or even dangerous links.
The next step in social media numbers has been the emergence of services that seek to rank users influence in social media across platforms. Klout may be the best known, Peer Index is gaining recognition, and they’re proliferating: Twitsdaq, Twitalyzer, TwentyFeet and Tweetstats are among the many seeking to rank you (and get you to subscribe to their “premium,” paid analytical services). There are also reports that in some industries, employers are beginning to look at these rankings when considering candidates for jobs.
Why do I recount all of this? Because while we may not yet have bar codes tattooed on our arms or the backs of our necks (choose your own dystopian vision) , we are ourselves being reduced to numbers, our worth being determined by our online activity, with little leeway for vacation, illness, or simply the demands of everyday life.
I’m being hyperbolic, I hear you cry. Yes, of course I am. But once out of college and past the arbiter of class rank, we have been judged solely on our achievements. Perhaps those on Wall Street could be judged by earnings, or film stars on their quoted payday per movie, but the people and organizations involved in creating art were judged qualitatively and subjectively, not quantitatively by some unknown algorithm.
I have fallen prey to this insidious practice and its lure of achievement by rank. I am weaning myself from it, although only two weeks ago I took part in a series of e-mails with PeerIndex because I was convinced that their data on me was wrong (in fact, it was, and my ranking has been rapidly rising ever since). I shudder to think that, had I not caught this and some prospective employer decided to check up on me, I’d be viewed as a social media failure. But I’m now controlling the impulse to check my rank on all of these services daily, or to seek new tools of measurement, though I’m not about to forgo them completely (hey, Klout is sending me a $10 coupon because I’m influential enough to sample a sandwich company’s new pulled pork offering).
But I worry about numerical assessments of effectiveness, especially if social media becomes truly ingrained in the national psyche, and it’s certainly well on its way to being lodged there. Having worked in a field where the primary goal is qualitative (read artistic) achievement, albeit with budgetary and audience measures, we may begin to be judged not just on what we put on our stages or produce as individuals, but as influencers or the influenced, those who lead and those who follow. Now we don’t just hope for a maximum number of stars from a critic for our shows, or the greatest amount of money we can raise, we are being personally quantified, compared and scored.
During my years at the American Theatre Wing, I would often, when discussing The Tony Awards and its peers in film, TV and music, make reference to a fascinating book entitled The Economy of Prestige by James F. English. Boiling the book’s thesis down with utter simplicity, it explores the process of awards-giving for artistic achievement, and how that process will always be imperfect because by comparing, ranking and choosing a “best” among works of art, we are forcing those works out of the creative realm and into the language of the marketplace. So it is with social media ranking.
Klout, PeerIndex and their cohorts now dispassionately judge our organizations and ourselves daily, and their wider acceptance can only diminish our creative achievements. As a longtime fan of science fiction on the page and on film, I see these rankings and I fight against them like so many revolutionaries who fought (will fight?) futuristic totalitarian societies, and I want to shout, “I am a human being. I am a man of the theatre. I am not a number.”
Like all speculative fiction, we’re not going to know for a while what this all means, but maybe we can prevent SkyNet from becoming self-aware, stop the crystal in our palm from turning black, rebel against Big Brother. But it all depends. Are you keeping score?