January 14

How I turned a Positive into a Negative (yes, you read that right) with vanity metrics


Vanity Metrics

Last night, something happened that really made me sit up and take notice. It's something that has been playing on my mind for a long time, but what happened last night really crystallised that it's something that I want to consider, talk about and explore.

At its most basic, the question is this. Why am I writing this post? But from that basic question stem many more, and the more I think about it, the further down the rabbit hole we go. So, for example, What do I hope to achieve from sharing this post with you? What need is this fulfilling. How am I measuring my own success and my own worth?

So, let's take one step back to (hopefully) take two steps forward.

Last night, I got an idea for a video. This video in fact:

What's important and interesting about this is that once I thought of the idea, I was filled with energy, passion, enthusiasm and all sorts of good endorphins. I couldn't wait to get started (I thought of it while putting my 11 month old to sleep). Once she was down, I went straight into my room and got started. I lost track of time. I missed dinner. Before I knew it, hours had passed and my 'masterpiece' was done, complete with a typo because I was in such a rush to get it out.

So far so good. This all makes sense. I am a creative person. I thrive on this sort of a project, it makes me come alive and gets me all giddy and exited, and I believe (and I'm open to correction) I enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I did Google how to spell his name) calls "Flow".

When the video was finished, I was delighted with it. My wife saw it and said she thought it was really good and really clever, and we joked about how this kind of thing makes up for my other failings.

You may have noted that there's a lot of past tense talking here, "I was delighted" for example. So, you can sense the 'but' coming......and here it is.

But then I shared it on social media. And it didn't get that many likes, shares or the type of 'traction' I had hoped it would and thought (and still think) it deserved. And it ruined it for me. It's as if the hours of 'flow' had been somehow wasted. And I quickly forgot the 'flow' and the happy vibes I had experienced while making the video and being immersed in the creative process and was just left feeling empty.

And this is not a new feeling for me. This is something I experience a lot. I suspect it's something that MOST people who have any sort of level of engagement or experience in social media feel from time to time. And it brings me back to the basic question about this post (and the same question applied to the video last night). Why did I make the video? Why am I writing this post? And on one level, the answer is I don't know. On another level, the answer is because I wanted people to validate me and my work/creativity/ideas and make me feel good about myself and my creative output. AND I HATE THAT.

I don't want to be this attention seeking 'look at me, look at what I did and look at what I can do' person. But part of me knows that I am. Part of me knows that we all are. We are all looking for some sort of validation from someone or something.

But I struggle to separate the two processes. Going back to the video, I wonder now how I would have felt if I had never shared it, for example? I wonder would I have bothered making it if I had already decided that I wasn't going to share it? Some people paint for pleasure. I wonder do they show their paintings to people (even family or friends, never mind social media), or do they just paint for the sheer joy of it and once the painting is finished, it goes on the pile of happy vibes and memories and then they move on. I wish I was like that. I wish I could have just done my video, enjoyed my couple of hours of immersive 'flow' and left it at that. I would have skipped the low that followed. But I don't think I'm wired that way. And that's a double blow, because as I have already said, the fact that I'm not wired that way bothers me. So not only am I annoyed and/or low that my video didn't get as much love as I would like, I'm also annoyed and/or low that I'm the kind of person who gets bothered that their video didn't get as much love as they would like. That I took an overwhelming positive experience and somehow with the click of a share button, made it a negative! Why would I do that to myself?

I was once at a counselling session (yeah, I've done that) and I explained this type of thinking to the psychologist and my thought process generally, and what goes on in my head day to day and she said "that sounds exhausting". Does that sound familiar to you? Always over-analysing why you're doing what you're doing and thinking of ways you could do it better. Particularly these kinds of circular thought patterns of "feeling X way about a situation, and feeling Y way about the fact you're feeling X way" where both X and Y are negative feelings?

It always reminds me of a quote I heard once, I think from Brian O'Driscoll, but I also think it (or a variation of it) has probably been said (or thought) by just about every elite sports person at one point or another and that's "the highs are never as high as the lows are low" - As best I'm aware, anecdotally at least, most elite sports people tend to remember the losses far more vividly than the wins. And most people do that in life too. We remember the criticisms far more clearly than the compliments.

So beware of the so called 'vanity metrics' and how you measure your success.

For me, there's a real irony about some of this, which is a career in the media industry where your whole worth is really decided based on vanity metrics (of one form or other), particularly in the case of radio, listenership figures. 4 times a year a listenership survey was carried out, and from that the maths boffins decided how many people listened to your radio show. And if the figures kept going down for successive listenership books, then you were out of a job.

I always thought it was and 'unfair' way to measure someone's work and their worth (and, to be fair to my former bosses, it wasn't for us). So, if you take a typical job, things like your effort, your ability, your focus, what you bring to the table, your skills, your relationships would all be some sort of KPIs for how you were doing. Whereas in radio, it seemed that whether you were 'successful' or more importantly whether you were doing a good job, was dependent on how many people liked and listened to you. Bear with me here. I get why this is the way it is, and to an extent, you can argue that the whole essence of your job is to get people to like you and listen to you. But much of that is out of your control, and comes down to marketing budgets, media spend, cross-promotion, incumbents etc. etc. The point being that you could be very talented, work your ass off and be an incredibly valuable asset, but things just don't fall the right way (for reasons, many of which may be out of your control) and your show is deemed a failure.

In my case, our direct competition for my time on the breakfast show was FM104's Strawberry Alarm Clock. And, let me come right out and say it, I thought our show was better. I would say that to Mark's face (he's a friend, we go way back) and I would fully expect him to say that he thinks (and thought) his show was better. You do have to have some ego to be in the radio game at all, to be fair. But the listenership figures were heavily heavily in their favour. So no matter how great I thought our show was, the listenership figures always said that their show was better (or at least bigger, depending on what weight you attach to the surveys).

The fact that a competing show that I thought we were better than (again, sorry Jim Jim and Mark (Nobby) kept kicking our asses was a tough pill to swallow. For 24 listenership books across 6 years, they were streets ahead of us in terms of listenership. We made small inroads, but they were small. And I remember after one set of disappointing figures talking about it with Tracy (my co-host and now 2fm legend) and asking her would she have done the show that morning any differently if we had another 50,000 listeners? Would we have enjoyed it any more, would we have felt any better? We both knew the answer was no, but it still hurt my ego that the show we thought we were better than were more successful based on listenership figures. And I think that's an important point to reflect on. Were the presenters of that show any happier than we were? I've no idea, I rather suspect not, as we had such unbelievable craic on our show. But again, we're back to how do you measure "success". For me, at that time, I tried to measure my success by how good I felt, and by how much I was enjoying what I was doing and how much fun I was having. But even day to day, metrics mattered, like how many texts you were getting, what the level of engagement with the show was like. For a while, those figures were actually tracked, in terms of texts, tweets, facebook messages etc.

As I was lying awake last night (I'm embarrassed to report this whole 'nobody liked my video' thing spiraled a bit!) thinking about this, I wondered if there was merit in a chrome plugin (one may already exist) the completely blocks likes and shares so that you don't know how many people liked and shared your content. And I have experience of this, past and present.

When I started working in radio, I worked for pirate radio stations. So did practically everybody on the radio today, so no need to call the Gardai on me. But, unsurprisingly, being illegal, they weren't included in the listenership figures. You had no idea how many people were listening. Nobody did. So you never really attached any value to that as a metric. Back then there wasn't even texts, so you could only really gauge any sort of listenership by the number of actual phone calls you get to a landline in the studio. And that was far from a reliable metric. But again, nobody cared. It wasn't measured, it couldn't be measured so it was never a metric you even really thought about.

Later in my career I had the amazing fortune to be station manager of a digital only radio station called FRQ.fm (pronounced freak, FYI). Many of the radio presenters currently on most of Dublin's commercial radio stations, but particularly Spin, came through FRQ. And there was F**K all people listening to it. But that wasn't the point of the station. It was a training station to train people up to be the next way of radio presenters in the absence of a pirate radio scene. Many of the presenters struggled with the fact they were in a small (smelly and non air-conditioned) studio talking to nobody. And I used to say to them that if they were in radio for the number of listeners, they were in it for the wrong reason. I also said that they should do as good a show for 10 people listening as for 10,000 people listening, and should enjoy it as much.

But at that time, I never had to test the theory and see if I would enjoy doing radio when there was very few listeners. And now I know. Because, I present a 2 hour radio show Monday to Friday on www.freedom92fm.com (it's a 90s and 00s station, it's brill, you should check it out). And relatively speaking, it has very few listeners, certainly compared to what I'm used to. But more importantly, I don't care how many people are listening. I never listen for the figures or stats, I just do my shows, and I have a ball doing them. Which, I have to say was a relief. I would have felt pretty bad for all the people in FRQ that I had preached to if I wasn't able to live up to my own sermons.

BUT, you can't get away from the metrics. Before I started writing this post I checked on the number of downloads of my Podcast The Habits Habit (available wherever you get your podcasts, also check it out) and the number of positive reviews it has received. I checked the number of visitors to the website and people taking part in my habits course. WHY. WHY am I doing this?! Arrrggghhhhh, it's maddening. For the last few years I've been searching around for a creative outlet. I knew I wanted to do a podcast, but I also wanted to do something that would or could make a difference. I didn't want to do something that was about being successful. I wanted to do something that I wanted to do for the sake of doing. That's the reason I didn't launch one of the other 45 podcast ideas I came up with. My other favourite was a podcast called 'The Life Of Brians' where I only interviewed people called Brian. It still makes me laugh, and I might still do it. I've also been pitching a very lude podcast to my former Fully Charged colleagues, but I can't write the name of it here!

And once again, I'm starting to get into that cycle of thought. Why am I REALLY doing the podcast. Is it for fun, for joy, out of passion. What is it? And I find myself in a similar situation to my video. While I'm recording the interviews, I LOVE what I'm doing. The chats, the insight, the human connection. Everything about it is great. But then I share it, and either lots of people listen or they don't. And somehow, I lose the connection to how I felt when I recorded the episode, and all I feel are the feelings that are attached to how much attention the episode is getting.

I started writing this on wordpad, not sure whether to actually post it online or not. In truth it has been quite cathartic to just write it....but I sort of know in my heart of hearts that I'm going to share it. And it raises an interesting (and oddly challenging) question that I was asked recently. "What do you do for fun?" and "When was the last time you did something just for fun". What really shocked me was I had no idea. I still don't. Apart from playing with my kids and spending time with family (which as anyone with small tantrum prone kids will tell you, is certainly not always fun!), nothing really. There's nothing that I do, that brings me "fun" that isn't somehow shared or connected to something that is shared online, and that then becomes something that is measured/judged on the metrics and the engagement.

I took a fairly large step back from social media for the last few years. It was causing problems. I was never present with family and friends. I now have a dumb phone that I try to use as much as I can. Its a Nokia flip phone and it has a basic version of Whatsapp on it, but not much else. But I'm struggling now with how to use it to promote my podcast and my course. Do I need to. Should I just do the podcast, enjoy doing it and put it out and whoever finds it finds it?

I tell myself that actually, what I'm doing can help people. That's (genuinely) why I started the podcast, and why it took my nearly six years to figure out a podcast that I actually thought ticked all the boxes in terms of being something that I would really enjoy just for the sake of doing it (which I do) but also which could make a genuine difference in people's lives. But now I've found myself sucked into the vanity metrics trap there too.
I hope it's not a crushing blow for you to have read all this only to have reached the end and discovered that I don't have an answer. I haven't figured this out. I may never figure this out. All I know is that yesterday I posted a video I loved and loved making, but because it didn't get "enough" likes, shares and hearts, I ended up feeling bad about it. Pressing share inadvertently took a positive and made it a negative.

And, with this post, I've just done it again.


If you don't like this post....I will be sad


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Georgie Crawford – The Good Glow Interview

Nir Eyal Interview – Author Of Hooked & Indistractable on Habits

  • I liked the video but wouldn’t have seen it if you hadn’t sent the link on email. I wouldn’t have liked or shared it on social media if I’d seen it there because it’s just not something I do. Doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or that my ‘liking’ versus a virtual vote is less valuable.
    I really like your blog post. Thought provoking. Georgie Crawford recommended Laurie Santos online Yale course to you in your podcast – I think you’d really like it. It covers this kind of thing – flow and feeling valued. She’s also be an excellent future guest on your podcast.
    Fun is seriously lacking in most adult lives. But I think it’s hard to have fun as an adult – because for something to be fun it has to be novel and stuff gets old pretty quick. Even the five-a-side fun game you play once a week quickly becomes less fun and more exercise. Finding fun is a challenge.

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