YouTube Subscriber Counts

A change to the platform’s feedback (and incentive) mechanisms.

A headline on The Verge: YouTube is changing how subscriber counts are displayed, possibly shifting its culture.

One of the most famous aphorisms in management is Peter Drucker’s observation that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This phrase succinctly captures an important idea: when deciding the way forward, data is your friend. Rather than discussing directions in the abstract, this concept encourages us to break down problems into impartial facets we can trace over time.

However, as useful as it is, there’s a flip side to this concept: with a compelling enough measure, we can lose sight of the ultimate “it” we’re trying to improve. The point of losing weight isn’t to read a lower number on a scale; it’s to get healthier. The number is a proxy for health — and an imperfect one at that. “Health” is a complex subject with lots of nuances. Articulating it as a single number can make it easier to understand, but oversimplifies a complex whole.

We compound the problem when we base incentives on these numbers. Let’s say you’re promised a $500 bonus if you lose a certain amount of weight by a particular date. At that point “health” is twice abstracted: your goal is now neither health nor weight but the money. The numbers start to become more important than the ultimate thing we want to achieve. The map is not the territory, but we’re being incentivized to navigate the map.

We hope to get to the goal on the real ground the map represents. But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the map is so compelling that it becomes the territory. This has happened with measures in social media such as follower counts on Twitter.

Back to The Verge article. High-level summary: After a recent kerfuffle between two “creators,” YouTube is changing how its system displays subscriber counts. Creators compete for subscribers, and their fortunes wax and wane accordingly. In this system, follower counts are a proxy for popularity. It’s an imperfect measure, but it’s clear and compelling, and so emerges as the locus of attention for an economy of influence. I didn’t realize it until reading about this issue, but there’s a secondary market on these stats: websites like Social Blade exist solely to track how these people are doing relative to each other. It’s a big deal.

But what’s the ultimate goal here? What social function is this system enabling? (What’s the equivalent of “health”?) Is it entertainment? Commerce? Both?

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