So Tumblr launched its Tumblarity index last week. (Here’s Gawker’s obnoxious take.)
Tumblarity is a metric that measures one’s popularity, or degree of Tumblr-ness, depending on who you ask. It’s displayed on a nifty stats page modeled after The Feltron Report. Tumblr hasn’t revealed exactly what it uses to calculate this number, but it certainly includes number of posts, followers, likes, and reblogs. My Tumblarity is 3 (which is very, very sad, in case you’re wondering), but if it were higher, I could see where I rank in the top 50,000 Tumblogs or in my local area.
I stole this image from download squad so you can see what a slightly better Tumblarity score looks like:
Like number of Twitter followers, Tumblarity is a quantified metric: a number that stands in for more complex social phenomena, like popularity or status. Tumblr helpfully includes leaderboards to make it extra-easy to compare Tumblarity with your friends, rivals, and frenemies, causing tech
dorks pundits to complain about the “popularity contest” aspect of the feature.
A few basic things about quantified metrics:
1) They are always stand-ins for more complicated status measures. A single number cannot possibly convey the nuances involved in social status and social hierarchy (e.g. Why do so many people read your Tumblr? What group/subculture/community does it appeal to? What actions do you take to maintain this status? What does your community value that your blog provides?).
2) Techie/geek/engineer types love quantified metrics precisely because they facilitate comparison. Several of my informants talked about how Silicon Valley types love talking about VC funding and valuation because they allow people to attach clear numbers to companies in order to rank them (and convey status on their CEOs, VCs, and employees). (See also those obnoxious “30 under 30,” “100 Most Influential People in SV,” ranking lists.)
Clearly, people in general also like comparative metrics — see the high score lists at arcades, the Fortune 500, the Best Dressed list, etc.– but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent in social software (built by nerds).
3) Quantified status metrics spur competition and therefore increase user action. I’m assuming Tumblr is trying to reward certain types of behavior, which in this case is pretty obvious: Tumble a lot, follow lots of people, reblog a lot = spend more time on the site = benefit to the company.
4) Social status is an under-studied, under-rated aspect of product design and motivation for user action. This is the subject of my dissertation and I’m seeing increasingly explicit aspects of this in social software (which: yay!).
But let’s not fool ourselves that an algorithmically-generated number “is” social status. I’m sure there are tons of sub-groupings and communities on Tumblr that value different things. I’m sure the top 100 Tumblr users are popular for different reasons. I’m sure there are Tumblr conventions and social mores that mark someone as an insider or outsider, a newbie or a jaded user. There are many good business reasons for the company to boil this down to a single number, but it only tells us a little bit of the overall story. Tumblrites: ideas?