Show me the numbers !!!!

The use of numbers to describe online representations of people: the difference between a database of things and a database of "people"

This article is about the forced display of numbers to describe online representations of people, it studies the cases of Twitter and Facebook. What is the difference between an online database of things, like an online shop, and an online database of “people”, like a social network? What’s wrong with numbers? The answer could seem common sense, but this reflection was intentionally developed in detail for the technical minds. Continue reading

I recently noticed that now when someone adds you as a friend on Facebook, this line appears under the name :

I find this line very inappropriate. Why is it there? Am I supposed to judge this person from those numbers? And make my decision of confirming or refusing based on these numbers? WHY ? Maybe for people who use Facebook to add strangers it’s useful to know if the account is real or not, but if really the goal is to “connect people” why tag them with numbers like this?

You know, it feels like when you see a product, you immediately look for the price tag. This line feels like the price tag. It’s like your scores. A measure of your influence and even worthiness. What use could this have other than to make people judge each other by numbers? Is it to encourage people to post more, have more friends etc? I wonder how the meeting to decide this went …

– We need to find a way to make people use facebook more.

Deep reflection of 15 min ….

– Uhhh I know !! We can display their numbers, you know a little bit like scores, this will make them post more !! We could start by putting those numbers everywhere, it’s already on their profile, but imagine if we put them in the friend request, everywhere !! It’s gonna be totally transparent.
– Oh yea! This way people will care more about the numbers and feel like in a competition
– or market !
– and they’ll comment more !!!
– Uuuh yes, and we could even add their salaries in there !!!
– OOOoooh…
– This way we know for sure how much a person worths !!!!
– And we know right away if it’s worth being friends with that person !!!!
– And we know their spending power, OOooh !!! *$$$$$$*
– YES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
…. Wait…. Hmm ….
– What ?
– …. No. In the name of Wisdom… and the Respect Of People as …Sentient Creatures, We, will not do this.
– ..?..hmmm, right.

…..Pause ….

– …..look, already does it, we are covered. We need to be the leaders of The Sharing Of Everything !!!!!!!!!!!
– …hmm. Ok let’s do that too! We’ll roll that out in V8. In the meantime gather all the numbers that can define a person. Height. Weight. Age. Balance in bank account. Number of cars. Number of houses. Number of shoes. Number of credit cards. Number of profile visits. Number of status updates. Number of admirers, enemies, exes, friends !!! Oh right, we already have that one, nnnniiiice! Let’s cook something tasty with all the rest. For now, paste all we have in the request.
– Yeah, let’s not make it an option to display the numbers. Let’s force everybody in the same grid, it’s soooo much simpler !!!!! Especially when we don’t hear about those humanists.
– Humanists ? Come on, teenagers don’t know a thing about humanism, we’re fine !! The only thing that matters is if people use it, and of course how many. We don’t force anyone, do we?
– Oh, God bless our materialistic era !! *$$$$$$*

powered by imagination

Ok. Ok. This might be a little exaggerated. I know, the real meeting has probably gone this way :

– We need to find a way to make people use facebook more.

Deep reflection of 15 min ….

– Sir, we could start by copying twitter :
– Right. That worked well for us when we copied the Like button from StumbleUpon Yes do that. Find any number we have and paste them in the request.
– Even the number of groups?
– Yes. It reveals how many groups you belong to, it is VERY relevant.
Now go change the world, little padawan. Remember : think disruptive.
– Yes sir.

powered by imagination


At first sight that line doesn’t seem like a big deal. For some, like me, it will somehow feel immediately wrong, and for some it will just seem “normal”. I intended to only post this article as a quick observation. But as I was writing it, I found relevant to explain in detail why exactly this line and the forced display of numbers are wrong from a UI standpoint that should interest other engineers.

So I developped my view below beyond the “that feels wrong” argument to share the reasons why this line is wrong hoping those who think the same will share their reasons too and also hoping that those who found the display of numbers “normal” until now will reconsider it after reading this article.

In my explanation, I didn’t restrain my view to the current context of the web but I rather consider the possible consequences the existing system could provoke. Thus, in the context of today, that line is indeed not highly significant and even seems to be consistent with what already exists, but that view changes when we consider what it is establishing for the future. What is at stake is the forced use of numbers to describe online representations of people.

Technology and humanism

The problem with technology driven companies sometimes is that there seems to be no reflection whatsoever about principles of humanism. There is no “is it good for people?” Of course, it’s not a public service. There is only one principle : use it or leave it, but please don’t leave it. The impact on society and people is not really measurable so, of course engineers feel free to design the product in a purely technical way. Is it possible? Yes. Does it work? Yes. Then just do it! Humanism ? But, why? Especially on the web, you have to follow the trend so that people use your product. It’s ok to reason like a pure technologist when what you deal with is only products on an online shop for example, just make the app as fast and efficient as possible. But when you deal with people, there should be more reflection.

Twitter case

In this case, ok Twitter shows the numbers, but Twitter shows the numbers + the feed because it’s public. You make the most of Twitter by sharing publicly. Because of that Twitter connects people that don’t necesarily met each other, it’s very much a news sharing service. Twitter is a microblogging service, so it works very much like a blog where you share about a topic. It’s unlikely that a person who shares about technology will include in her feed what she ate at lunch or put a link to a LOL cat video at the same time.The more people are interested in the content the more they are to follow, just like on a blog where the more people are interested the more they are to subscribe.

Twitter basically provides information feeds, the number of followers indicates if that feed has an audience, the number of tweets indicates if that feed is active, and finally the number of feeds you are following indicates if you are a real person or an organization (for example if you follow some 20,000 people). The numbers are related to the content and are therefore more or less relevant to know if the content could be interesting for you. On top of the numbers you can also check the description, the lists and the feed itself to decide if you should follow a feed. Thus, what you follow on Twitter is content and information, not necesarily people you know. You need the numbers and other criteria to know what the content is about.

Facebook case

Facebook on the other hand connects people that really know each other, at least that was the point of joining Facebook at the beginning, you add someone because you know or met that person, not because that person shares interesting things or has 99 groups and 647 friends….! Facebook is not a traditional blogging service in that you don’t share about a specific topic, you share about your person : your life and all your interests. A person who has many friends on Facebook has probably met many people, but it doesn’t mean that what she shares is actually interesting for her friends. With Facebook there is no way of balancing how many friends added you vs. how many friends you added. The “friends” are not an audience to what you have to say, they are contacts, the virtual relationship is symetrical, so in no way the number of friends is associated to the shared content itself. Therefore the numbers directly apply to the person who shares, this is a big difference between Facebook and regular blogging services.

For these reasons, I find the numbers in Facebook disturbing and irrelevant because they make you associate the numbers with the person (hence price tag metaphor) and not the content itself since the feed is, in usual use, private. You are just left with the numbers and the person’s name (+ sometimes other information allowed to appear publicly by the person). In my view, you don’t even need to see those numbers and certainly not at the same level as the person’s name because

1. to see if the account is real just check the mutual friends, no need of numbers
2. businesses don’t add you, you add a business and businesses don’t really care about your numbers, they want the maximum followers so they’re gonna accept your request anyway
3. If a total stranger adds you, if your policy is to add strangers you might as well accept anyone, no need of numbers.

This line of numbers suggests that Facebook might want users to evaluate each other’s content like a regular blog content. This would mean that from now on, you add someone for the content he/she shares, not because you know that person and want to “keep in touch”.

First, what about the ambition of “connecting” people and help them to “keep in touch” and even build “trust”[1], do you do that by tagging/evaluating your “friends” with numbers?

Second, since the numbers are not related to the content, and the content is private, that line of numbers becomes clearly irrelevant and when applied to people, toxic. It’s a poor UI decision to have put it there. Following the trend is not necesarily the right thing to do when the cases of use are fundamentally different.

Introduction to the problem : the UI narrative

Here, in either case, Twitter or Facebook, I don’t think it’s wise to force the display of numbers because people don’t use these services in the same way and the display of numbers turns the shared content immediately in marketable data and not someone‘s data. Yet, Twitter’s numbers feel less wrong than Facebook’s numbers, why? Habit, really? No, I rather think UI.

I observed that any good webapp has a consistent narrative line. Twitter’s narrative line forms around the tweet – the chirp of a small or young bird. Facebook’s narrative line forms around friendship. Thus, Twitter’s focus is on the information being shared – the tweet, and Facebook’s focus is on people, the narrative is the people. From the start Facebook clearly chose to deal with “people” not with “feeds of information”. They hijacked the word “friend”, the notion of “friendship” and real identities with the respectable ambition of connecting people.

Because of their “people” narrative, Facebook encourages people to assign a value to people (not the content) and act like in a market of people by displaying numbers everywhere, whereas Twitter’s numbers are less personal and are related much more to the content.

Just because of their narrative, it’s gonna be difficult for Facebook and possibly dangerous to stick with their ambition on the web. It is indeed tempting to organize the content like any online content, but since they clearly want to deal with people, their design raises and will always raise a lot of humanist questions, like privacy, identity, rights etc. It’s probably the most tricky narrative line that a webapp could have picked : people.

On one hand, it’s incredibly powerful because it naturally integrates with people’s daily lives. On the other hand, it’s a big weakness because the data is not just data, it’s someone‘s data. The human dimension prevents the use of the full power of technology on people. At some point they’ll have to either give up on dealing with people, and start dealing with feeds (and ideally make it obvious by removing “friend” from their vocabulary for a start) or they’ll have to think a lot lot more and hone their design to keep up with their ambition or the easiest solution, they can just ignore humanist questions and see what happens.

Part of the solution

If indeed a feed is only a feed, meant to be marketed to promote something, the user should be able to display the numbers. If on the other hand people use it as a way to communicate with close ones and real people, the numbers should not be displayed, or at least made optional. Numbers should only appear at user’s request. As users, we don’t even have that choice, we always see the numbers, even privately.

Yet, when we present ourselves to the world we chose how to do so, we change our appearance and attitude all the time. Some people like showing numbers, some don’t. Here, those who don’t use numbers are forced to consider numbers to connect with others and with people they know. Don’t you find weird that your goal is to communicate with someone and in the process, suddenly you have all the stats showing up, without never asking for them? What if the phone was designed in the same way? Instead of hearing the dialling tone, you would hear a repeating voice telling you “You are about to get in touch with your friend M. Bambbo who has 367 friends, a 100,000$ worth property and 3 children” ?

Of course, it’s difficult to differentiate the ways in which people use the service, but it’s not a reason to put everyone in the same basket. That’s how humanist principles help : they help to think of the users and the subtleties of use. Humanism is the most suitable principle we can get inspiration from to design technology meant for people.

So slight differences of use and narrative change the approach of design and the user experience. The problem with that line of numbers stems from the narrative of people that Facebook adopts. The problem is that the numbers apply directly to the person and numbers assigned to people feels wrong, but why? Is it just a feeling, “in that case /*ignore*/ and get used to it” or is there a real reason why we should think about it?

The problem is … philosophical

In this case, putting numbers everywhere drags the focus away from the person and obliges users to consider numbers before the person or consider numbers at the same level as the person. The numbers implicitly become a grid that describes the person, and because they appear when you have to decide whether or not to accept a contact, the numbers are innocently suggested as a decision criterion to accept or not the person.

Fundamentally this is not a problem if we accept that “online accounts” don’t represent anything else beyond only “online accounts”, they remain in the virtual sphere and have no impact on the real world. In other words, if we accept that our account is only an information feed fully disconnected from our person, you can treat it like any online content : tag it, organize it, describe it, rate it.

The problem with social media is that they transform those seemingly just “online accounts” into “self portals” that by definition represent a person. I defined a “self portal” as the online feed resulting from a person’s self expression in the article We are digital mammals about digital narcissism. Because social media name the “online account” after the person’s full name, the person’s name appears everywhere and people are encouraged to express themselves spontaneously through their “self portal”. As a result people inevitably manage their online identity and actual identity through those self portals. To quote a social designer at Facebook :

Facebook profiles have become people’s identities.
This is their de facto representation of themselves […] [Source]

This assertion is extremely simplistic of what people’s identity means, but it confirms that Facebook is aware of dealing with people so we can’t pretend that “online accounts” don’t represent anything else beyond only “online accounts”. Online accounts are in truth associated with people and therefore can’t be treated as mere data.

But why not? What’s the difference between an online shop full of products and descriptions and a social network full of self portals and descriptions?

Technically, there is no difference. From a machine’s point of view, it’s the same kind of information, lines in databases. The debate occurs for us philosophically. That’s the cause of any humanist endeavour : convince humanity that a human being is a person who deserves rights just for being a person. It’s not a natural principle, not even easy to understand nor to implement. Indeed, at the bottom level there are no rights, humanism only results from a choice that you make when you chose civilization over savage evolution. The difference between an online database of things and an online database of people is our perception of what a person is in our culture. If we make the choice of civilization, the concept of person is important and should be respected and treated differently from anything else, even online. If we make the choice of savage evolution, the concept of person does not exist, what only exist are living beings trying to survive, any treatment is possible.

Yes, but. What’s wrong with numbers?

– the machines : Yes, but we don’t define the grid, we only reveal what already defines you.
– the human : No please, let me define myself. Don’t force me into your grid. I have a free will !!!!

Humans are so touching, right? Again, the debate is philosophical. Can the human define himself alone? Or is he defined by characteristics such as social status, degree, age, weight, height, number of friends, number of qualities, number of weaknesses… numbers? What is freedom if we are predefined by the values a system puts over our heads? Of course, many things already define us. How are numbers worse than our hair colour to define us ?

First, contrary to our hair colour, numbers are ordered and measurable. Therefore, if numbers are used to define us, they’re going to inevitably place us in a hierarchy that will probably decide of our rights.

Second, we tend to trust numbers whatever they are to define something because “numbers never lie”. So we will most likely accept any hierarchy based on numbers because we don’t know any stronger argument than numbers. Numbers are impossible to question. But in truth no meaning is attached to numbers from the start. A number is just a number. The meaning is attached later when we interpret the numbers and draw subjective conclusions that can have bad consequences.

Finally, numbers are what machines understand really well, they understand it better than “hair colour” so it’s way easier for them to organize us based on numbers. Later when they become sentient, they will also take into account “hair colour” but let’s hope they use it with good intentions.

Discrimination based on numbers

This leads us to a possible new form of discrimination based on numbers. There is no doubt that the web is turning into a numbers driven place where people have now a certain influence depending on their “scores” aka “followers”, “friends”, “subscribers”. If those numbers applied before to businesses, with the advent of social media they now also apply to individuals. So we can imagine the following scenario :

As a customer I ordered a product or service online and never received it. I am hugely dissatisfied by the service and get in touch with the customer service. Like more and more businesses, the contact is only made by distance, they don’t have an actual office I can go to in order to claim my purchase. I spend time and energy trying to contact them. They assure me they’re going to find a solution. In the end, still no progress. What does the business risk? Online reputation ? They checked my profile, scanned the numbers, and judged me not enough influent to make a difference, so they drop my case. I never hear from them again. I lost money, time and energy. Have I less rights because I don’t market myself online?

Isn’t that realistic? Being deprived from the right of claiming a purchase because the numbers are not right. What can I do? Post an article that will never be found because the system is based on influence? Am I forced to improve my numbers and market myself? Or rate the service somewhere, but where? How does that solve my problem? I would have to probably take a legal action. Then I’d have to weigh : am I ready to take a legal action with all the efforts, energy and time it requires to claim a 15€ worth service or do I drop the case? This is a new kind of discrimination based on numbers that could realistically happen. Little by little that’s what the numbers rush us in.

So what ?

All in all, I see two possible outcomes.

1. We change our way of thinking that took years of philosophy, arts and science, in one word civilization, to develop and we globally accept that the concept of person no longer exists. In this case, anything is possible. We can treat online representations of people exactly the same as online representations of things. Rate them, organize them, tag them, categorize them, define them, describe them, then match that online organization with the real world and see what happens.

With products, we organize them in order to buy them. With people, what will the end action be ? For now it only boils down to add/don’t add, but in the future what can we expect of such categorization? Kill/don’t kill? Rights/No rights? Most likely, if the design of technology remains so careless, the poor design is what will change our way of thinking until we widely accept that the concept of person no longer exists. The new principle could be, “market yourself, or die”. Unfortunately, this evil design works very well because it’s easy and has apparently no impact, its consequences are not measurable, so anything is permitted. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until it’s too late and actually becomes a big deal.

2. OR – We choose civilization. We don’t forget all our acquired knowledge that always helped us to move forward and we keep our critical thinking on to not let ourselves defined by numbers and “profiles”. Eventually technology will be more carefully designed or better alternatives will rise. However, given the easiness of careless designs it is to expect that it continues until people accept it as a norm, and only informed ones will find it wrong. Let’s hope that information spreads as widely as possible so that those who find it wrong don’t stay a minority. But as long as it’s not a norm, fortunately we can still bring change.

There is no doubt that we are going to be digitized at some point because digitization can be very helpful if carefully designed, it can help us achieve our best selves, know more, learn more, create more. Careful design makes technology the most helpful, it’s not easy, it takes a lot of reflection to implement. That’s the point of including humanist principles in the design of technology : create helpful technology.

A new form of consumption : consuming people

But let’s not be naive, numbers help people consume …other people [2]. The display of numbers follows the logic of consumption to which society is already used to. I don’t think Facebook and other social media actually intended to display the numbers in that evil perspective of making people consume other people (at least I really hope they didn’t).

Instead, I think they conformed with the context we live in, and put numbers everywhere thinking that’s the way to go since people are already used to it. But it’s not because everybody got used to a bad behaviour that it means nothing better can be invented. Especially on the web where anything is possible, why not invent new forms of expression to produce positive behaviours in real life instead of encouraging bad behaviours. There are so many richer ways for people to define themselves than just with numbers.

I don’t doubt that this line of numbers will soon appear normal, it is only a question of habit. As the defense of careless designs argues, “they’ll get used to it”. If, however it suddenly disappears, the numbers have become such a full feature in applications today that they will hardly disappear, the problem of forcing their display and their use will remain. But by not reacting we accept to see our name and therefore a part of us pushed into a grid that was not defined by ourselves but rather by an external system.

Existing before the numbers

But, do we really define ourselves, isn’t it a sweet illusion?

I think we are used to be defined by an external system. That’s how the human system is. From the grades at school to our groups of friends, or people trying to define us all the time, our social status etc. everything captures us within a box that eventually convinces us that this is what we are. Some people are so convinced that they continue accepting it. They count on degrees, prizes, profiles, things, numbers to define them instead of following their real aspirations and let the rest be a consequence of what they are. Thus we could see the numbers online as another extension of this process of automatic definition. It all depends on you, the individual. Do you accept the definition that was created for you?

There is a scene in The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov where Bailey, an investigator, is obliged to collaborate with a robot that looks so human that Bailey panics and yells at the robot “Show me the metal !!!!” to make sure the robot is only a robot. Fortunately we are not at this stage where numbers are what defines us as the metal defines the robot. Fundamentally, we don’t have a unique characteristic that identifies us. We don’t yell “Show me the numbers !!!!” before interacting with each other. We are still lucky, we can chose and constantly change what defines us. Maybe that is what freedom is.

This makes me conclude on the existentialist philosophy that Jean-Paul Sartre spent all his life developping : human beings contrary to objects exist before their essence, there is nothing that can predefine their goals and life, they are the only ones inventing themselves.

Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.

So if we know who we are, we’ll be able to invent ourselves despite any systems poorly designed trying to define us with arbitrary criteria. This is the permanent solution : let’s not forget that we are able to create, we can define ourselves by our creations and actions.
We, human beings.


[1] Social Design Strategy “[…] this is the foundation of why Social Design works—because of this trust.”

[2] Marx Reloaded, a film by Jason Barker


Do we define ourselves?
What’s wrong with numbers?
Can technology be humanist? Should it be humanist? Why?