Measurement and why we do it

MeasurementThis week I’ve rather been forced to consider measurement.  It’s not that I am against measurement; indeed I am an advocate of measurement as an essential tool for business, to appreciate performance, understand the market and find new opportunities.  But I’m beginning to wonder whether the practice of measurement has become so normalised in society that as humans we are constantly seeking new ways to measure ourselves.  It is as if in the absence of regular school-based examinations, we are constantly seeking mechanisms that can reinforce our place in the world.

Yesterday the twittersphere was on fire with posts from users indicating their twifficiency, and bile from those who were finding their feeds rather irritatingly full of twifficiency ‘spam‘.  Dan Martin and Paul Clarke both defended the author of the twifficiency measurement tool for his inventiveness and the speed with which he responded to the breach of etiquette that was an essential element in the viral success of the tool.  But I was perplexed as to why anyone would want to measure their ‘efficiency’ in their use of twitter in the first place.  It seemed to me that any tool which purported to calculate a measure of ‘efficiency’ based on your following:follower ratio and how many tweets you respond to versus how many you read, was fundamentally flawed.  How do any of these variables contribute to ‘efficiency’? What do followers and whom you follow have anything to do with your performance as a twitter user? How is it possible to measure responses to tweets where users may choose alternative mechanisms to respond to information?  And how can it be remotely possible to measure how many tweets are read when there is no way of gauging how a user reads posts determined by keywords in an RSS feed?  And even with all these limitations, this tool would only actually measure efficiency if your ambition as a twitter user was to maintain an equal number of followers to following ratio and if the user responds to the majority of @replies they receive.  That’s not any kind of efficiency.  It might be a ‘twifficiency’ but that’s all it could ever be.

Of course when I challenged the twitterati on the subject last night (briefly, before a power blackout cut me off), the responses given ranged from guilty admissions of insecurity to protestations that these measurement tools are ‘fun’.  Of course, I was intending to be provocative in my post, but I was also interested in the reasons why these measurement tools are always so popular and immediately viral.  And I have to say the responses I received troubled me, because there was a clear sense that the act of measurement is now so ubiquitous in activities online – from describing what character you most resemble in a television series, to what personality traits you supposedly possess, to your twitter efficiency – that we have stopped asking why we do these things and what is being measured.

And it’s the last point – what is being measured – which disturbs me most.  Of course I have a sense of humour and understand these things are often just a means of breaking up the tedium of the day.  But I suspect that as more and more of these measurement tools, quizzes and instruments emerge, we are becoming less and less prepared to challenge what is being measured in our professional lives and why it is being measured.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, for instance, is the most trusted personality based test in the human resources sector, and is used to determine suitability for employment throughout the world both at interview stages and in career advice services in schools.  This is true, in spite of the fact that the MBTI has been roundly debunked as pseudoscience and the purpose for which it was created is markedly distinct from the manner in which it is being generally deployed.  The reason why it retains its acceptance in the community is because users are not investigating the validity of the testing instrument and they do not enquire as to whether the context of its use is valid.  We are so willing to be test subjects that we do not challenge the testing mechanism.

And yet in a society where measurement is crucial to calculate performance and new opportunities, and timely news and information services can mean the difference between profit and economic disaster, it seems to me extraordinarily dangerous to have so glib a perspective on measurement tools.  Yes, twifficiency may have been a bit of fun for those who engaged, and a mild annoyance for those of us who find these things irrelevant in our news feeds, but our collective understanding of measurement instruments, contexts for deployment and meaning of test results certainly needs to improve if we are to be genuinely efficient citizens of an information economy.

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