Rhodri Marsden: With so many big numbers online, something just doesn't add up
'That's one like, but it's pretty big - how do we count that?'
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 15 May 2014
We find it hard to comprehend the magnitude and meaning of largish numbers, and it's not entirely our fault. It's hard to visualise millions when we only have 10 fingers and 10 toes. We even find it difficult to assess the number of people seated in a hall without doing some pretty rapid multiplication, and when we find out that it's about 350, it's equally difficult to know if that's impressive or not.
I've become quite sensitive to this kind of thing. If someone tells me a number while they've got their eyebrows raised, my instinct is to think "yeah, but is that any good?" There was one such moment on television the other week, when Heston Blumenthal excitedly informed viewers that "Britons eat an incredible 123 million pies every year". It seemed like an astonishing amount of pie until I remembered that there are 60-odd million of us in the UK, which means roughly one pie each every six months. Pie-wise, I'd say that almost verges on disappointing.
This practice of forcing us to take notice by shrieking large numbers at us is something that's endemic within the media, but there's an added layer of meaninglessness when the subject of said shrieking is the internet, and particularly social media. Five, six, seven-figure numbers are fired at us with such rapidity that we've almost become immune to their effect. Shorn of context, it's impossible to know what any of them really represent.
Yesterday, I read that a former winner of American Idol has just passed 2 million "likes" on Facebook. I also read that a campaign to buy Blencathra, a fell in the Lake District, has hit the dizzy heights of 400 likes. A photograph of a man who stole a bike from a shed in Blackheath was apparently retweeted 3,000 times, while a video of a bunny rabbit eating raspberries got 7 million views over the weekend. All these numbers were reported as somehow significant, but none were placed in a context that made them remotely meaningful. We were impressed simply because we were told to be.
Of course, for people who start online petitions, this confusion is a godsend; any number over a thousand can almost magically be made to represent the passionate championing of a cause. But I look at these numbers and shrug. After all, that raspberry-eating rabbit has potential global appeal, so viewing figures of 7 million could represent woeful underachievement. Similarly, the publisher that celebrates the milestone of 7,000 Twitter followers for its new author may include that figure in a press release, but they must secretly be thinking "Does this mean anything?"
We're aware of the fake followers, fake likes and fake views that artificially inflate these numbers, but even uninflated numbers would be curiously lacking in significance. They certainly don't represent the interest of individual people – and, of course, they're all getting cumulatively larger over time. This ceaseless inflation is leading to linguistic inflation, inflation of expectation and even less understanding of what the numbers actually mean.
I recently saw a tweet featuring a map of the world that picked out the many countries whose population is lower than the number of likes Shakira has on Facebook. This was presumably meant to be a profound illustration of something or other, but all it communicated to me was the fact that numbers on the internet are, at worst, completely unfathomable, and, at best, only superficially impressive, a bit like a five-year economic growth forecast.
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