“Number go up” isn’t everything

I have no idea how many people read my articles. I love it.

This hasn’t always been true. When I worked at a culty tech company, I was forced to obsess over metrics. I was told I’m not data-driven enough, that I needed to improve. My manager set up a dashboard I was supposed to check regularly, showing me how many people have read which articles. The idea was that seeing which articles “did numbers” would help me write more similar articles in the future, which would in turn make me better at what I do. And I don’t doubt that data would make me a better marketer, which is why I thank God every day that I’m not a marketer anymore.

I don’t write articles because I want to reach as many people as possible. I write articles because I want to solve problems, offer advice, and possibly be a little bit entertaining. If I do that well, I feel satisfied, no matter how few people read it. If I do that poorly, and a lot of people read it, I feel like crap. That’s my internal value system. And I think most people who make stuff have some version of that—some reason they make things that has nothing to do with the size of the audience. That’s a healthier way to create than obsessing over numbers, and I’m grateful I’m successful enough to do so.

Metrics dominate our culture at the moment. Netflix, famously, makes TV shows based on data, which is something I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching 3 Body Problem. This is a show based on a Chinese novel of the same name.

I cannot speak to the quality of the novel—I have not read it. I will say that the Netflix show feels more designed to drive streaming numbers than it does to function as a television show. I hate it.

I have no idea, while watching, why I’m supposed to like any of the characters. This is in part because we don’t spend any time with them in their regular lives before the weird science fiction stuff starts happening, so we have no idea who they were before from anything other than exposition-heavy dialogue. But it’s also because all of the characters, with the exception of Clarence the detective, are jerks. I have no idea why the core group of scientists who inexplicably become the most important people on earth are even friends—they hang out sometimes but only to get angry at each other. And all of this is before I talk about the sci-fi-type-things that happen, none of which make any sense.

I could rant about all of this for a long time—I already have—but from what I understand the show is still “doing numbers”. And why wouldn’t it? The entire thing is engineered to keep people watching in the streaming age. There are more mysteries in this show than answers and new episodes only add more. The most interesting things—arguably the only interesting things—in every episode always happen right at the end. This feels like a show designed to keep you from stopping autoplay from queuing up the next episode, even if you’re only doing that out of frustration. This is a show written to game the Netflix algorithm, which is how most of Netflix’s shows feel lately.

The internet is suffering from similar problems at the moment, which is why it sucks so much to browse at the moment. People aren’t writing much for the joy of it, or to help people—they’re writing to maximize their audience. We all recognize these tactics when we see them, even if its subconsciously, and we all know that it sucks. I try not to work that way. I hope that it’s working.


  1. @JustinPotBlog When I worked at WaPo a decade ago I was so grateful the editors kept us reporters largely shielded from metrics. If it was top read, we'd see it listed, otherwise pretty much nada.

  2. @JustinPotBlog Netflix’s shows feel like this way forever. Their Japanese produced ones are different though. Also the 3-body book sucks and makes no sense at all.

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