Does x know about y?, and Other Social-Media Math Puzzles

English: jacket cover of Dominate your market ...

English: jacket cover of Dominate your market with Twitter – UK edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How much is a human life worth? That fraught question arises in the chaos of war and revolution, and in the delicate and painful arena of what are euphemistically called “end-of-life decisions.” Now, thanks to the recently completed initial public offering of Twitter, we have an answer: One hundred thirty-seven dollars.

That, in any event, is the value that one gets by dividing the $31.8 billion first-trade market capitalization of Twitter’s shiny new New York Stock Exchange issue by the company’s most recent count of “active monthly users,” 232 million. (I can do the math, but TechCrunch has thoughtfully done it for me.) We can all take comfort in the fact that the value of an individual human by that standard has ticked up ten bucks, or 7.9%, since the ill-starred IPO of Facebook a year and a half earlier.

“Market value per user” is a convenient metric for companies like Twitter — more convenient, anyway, than troubling, fusty old valuation measures like price/earnings ratio, since as far as I can tell Twitter has never earned a dime in profit. (Indeed, Twitter seems to be managing to rack up ever-bigger deficits; its third quarter loss expanded 200% year to year, on a doubling of revenues.) But although TechCrunch, at least, seems to view value-per-user as a metric that might actually have some kind of meaning, clearly it raises as many questions as it answers.

First, of course, is: Just what is an “active monthly user”? A very small amount of digging reveals that Twitter — “like almost every online platform” — defines an active monthly user as someone who accesses the platform once or more per month. Well! I would respond: Active, no; monthly, yes; user, barely. Presumably, this definition would include the German avant-garde “Merz” artist Kurt Schwitters, who tweets daily, and a sample of whose postings I’ve reproduced below:


Personally I don’t find this particularly illuminating, but I give Schwitters the benefit of the doubt, and definite props for trying — after all, he has been dead for 65 years.

underwearBut I am, perhaps, picking on Twitter a bit too much, as other social-media platforms provide their own wealth of pseudo-data with which to grapple. For example, we have those “Likes” on Facebook that we all pore over, struggle to interpret, paste onto PowerPoint slides for senior-management presentations, and generally grope toward as evidence of “brand engagement.” But as engagement currency, Facebook “Likes” strike me as a very base kind of coinage indeed. I’ve seen clicking the “Like” button described as “the closest thing on the Internet to a grunt” — a brief, inarticulate expression of vague approval, with very little activation energy and no long-term consequence whatever. In a world where an ad for “the most stolen underwear on the planet” can garner nearly 27,000 such passive nods in very short order, one can’t help but wonder about the value of any one of them.

But of all of the new metrics with which social-media platforms now confront us, none seem quite as problematic as those “endorsements” that appear to have all but superseded more thoughtful written “recommendations” on LinkedIn. I’m sure you’re familiar with them; occasionally, you receive an e-mail that one of your connections on the network has “endorsed” you for a particular skill. You feel a brief flush of pleasure, and follow the link, to be confronted with a matrix of questions about the expertise of others in your network, and invited to return the favor by endorsing them:

Does Jane Doe know about content strategy?

Does John Roe know about Web design?

Does James Williams know about HTML 5?

Does Mary Smith know about REST APIs?

By the mere act of clicking the blue “endorse” button, you can provide that same brief pleasure of recognition to a friend or colleague, without any real negative consequences. Why not just click? Even in the bleakest future imaginable, it is hard to envision the proverbial 2:00 a.m. rapping on the door by jack-booted thugs for the crime of an ill-informed endorsement of someone’s HTML 5 skills.

Yet, for me, it is more complicated. I spend a surprising amount of time suffering over these decisions, tormented by doubt. Does Jane know about content strategy? When I knew her, years ago, she was a proofreader, but surely she could have grown and changed since then . . . In the end, I tend to be rather stingy with my endorsements, reserving them only for cases where I have first-hand evidence. Jane, after all, will never know that I didn’t endorse her.

But not everyone views these things the same way — and that is what makes the LinkedIn endorsement so insidious. This was driven home to me recently when I received an endorsement on a relatively narrow skill by a LinkedIn contact at another organization. When I received the e-mail notifying me of this endorsement, I spent a few minutes with furrowed brows, wondering not only how this person could know about my skills in this particular area, but, in fact, just who this person actually was. I never did resolve either quandary.

So LinkedIn endorsements, while gratifying in themselves, have the worst characteristics possible as an actual practical measurement: They carry a patina of insider authority, but there are no standardized criteria for selection, and no indication of what an endorsement really means — and it appears that some people actually take them seriously. So you can either ignore them, or accept yet another unfunded mandate on your ever-dwindling leisure time. Case in point: I recently received an e-mail inviting me, for the mere cost of some personal data, to read a new whitepaper on “How to Manage Your LinkedIn Endorsements.” (Yes, there’s a “whitepaper” on that subject.)

We face an uncertain future, but we can count on one thing, at least: we all will confront an increasing burden of attending to these and other new, questionable measurement axes in our online personae — which social-media platforms, desperate to make some money and justify their high IPO prices, will continually cook up and foist upon us. Maybe it really is time to unplug.