“Big data” lets you monitor your social reach, but at what price?
True Story: When I was in junior high, I was very, very concerned with getting my social status right. Who wasn’t? But it was particularly loaded for me because I had proven, to that point in my short life, to be a pretty abysmal failure at all things “social.” In my quest to achieve ever-elusive popularity, I learned to listen to music I didn’t particularly like. I did my level best to appear older than I was, and to at least give the appearance of sexual worldliness. I obsessed about my clothes and my hair. God it was painful.
I don’t think I am unique in this revelation about my adolescence. That’s why adolescence sucks. All the world is a mirror for a frail ego, confronted with a terrifyingly vast array of possible answers to the question “Who am I?” I also don’t think I am unique in reflecting on this stormy period of life and thinking “Oh thank God that’s over with.” Or so we thought.
I began reflecting on this when I recently signed up for ResearchGate, which is sort of a LinkedIn for academics. In an email, ResearchGate has helpfully informed me that my “RG Score” is 3.97. Wait. What the hell does that mean? Against my better judgement, I rush to the link that will explain this. “A new way to measure scientific reputation,” the site says. “The RG Score takes all your research and turns it into a source of reputation.”
Great. Suddenly I’m back in junior high, walking down the hallway to my stupid Science class and fretting about whether the boots I snuck out of my mum’s closet will pass the “cool test” among my hostile peers.
ResearchGate and LinkedIn are among websites that, under the pretenses of career building, encourage a person to obsessively monitor their “progress” via increasingly sophisticated analytics. My scholarly reputation can now be quantified. Maybe there is some merit to knowing how many people viewed my research papers or my profile last week. I don’t know. Maybe if I dig in hard to ResearchGate, upload all my research, and suck up to colleagues, I can nudge my RG Score higher and improve my job prospects. But at what price? As our lives are increasingly monitored – by ourselves, our social “others” and by corporations, it’s not a bad idea to reflect on what it’s doing to us.
The idea that much of our sense of “who am I” is shaped and managed by how we present ourselves to others is not new. Philosophers have long speculated on the relationships between ourselves and what is sometimes called the “social other.” In the 20th century, sociologists like James Mead, George Cooley, and (Canadian!) Erving Goffman laid theoretical groundwork for lots of interesting sociological studies on this topic.
What is new is the ways in which a ubiquitous online presence can affect our still very human tendency to wonder if other people like respect and admire us. My theory is that if we aren’t very careful, social media can lead to a kind of regression to that very adolescence we worked so hard to move past. If checking my Twitter follower counts, Facebook likes, and “RG Score” becomes something akin to a nervous tick or obsessive compulsive disorder, I need to take a big old break from the Internet. Because I may as well be back in junior high – a small and unhappy world indeed.
I killed the email notification feed from ResearchGate. Just like I’ve killed it for Facebook, LinkedIn, and RateMyProf. I don’t want or need to know whether I’m being watched, or what people think of me. One of the great gifts of surviving adolescence and maturing is that you learn to give way, way less of a shit what other people think. The obsessive fascination with the ego (hopefully) fades, making way for a spirit of empathy, and outward-facing curiosity.. The world becomes larger. Other people become more important and interesting than ourselves. I’m not about to give that away just because big data has made it possible to do so.
Notes and References
 Erik Erikson’s classic work in developmental psychology identified adolescence as the stage at which a developing person has to either pull his or her ego into something that makes sense, or suffer from lasting “role confusion.” James Marcia, a (Canadian!) developmental psychologist, built on Erikson’s work with his Identity Status model, which predicts four possible outcomes for young adults, depending on how they’ve faired in the ego work identified by Erikson and others. Mostly this stuff comes out of Freudian psychology. What I think is cool is the extent to which it has been borne out by more recent studies of adolescent brain development.
 They made no impression at all, actually. I think it was because I wasn’t wearing them with legwarmers. Yeah. Those were a thing in the 80s, my young(er) friends.
 This stuff all falls under a school of sociology called “Symbolic Interactionism.” Hogan (2010) believes that Goffman has been particularly helpful for studying social media because he used the metaphor of stages, theatre and performance to explain the way we interact with other people. His book was even called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life!” (cf. Hogan, B., 2010. The presentation of self in the age of social media: Distinguishing performances and exhibitions online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377–386. doi:10.1177/0270467610385893
 I try to stay pretty Zen about my blog analytics too. It’s not like I don’t get there’s some irony going on with all this. And for the record, I don’t look at colleagues’ RateMyProf pages either. It would feel violent, and violating to do so.