👋 Hello everyone. I'm Michael Hall and I will be your guide in Rosieland today.
I want to start you off with a story about good intentions with bad outcomes.
Hopefully, everybody has seen the Disney Pixar movie Monster’s Inc. by now. In the movie, the monster society runs on energy produced by children’s screams. Even though it’s the energy they’re after, not the screams, it’s the screaming that was their primary metric, and everything about their company was organized around increasing that.
Then, in a heart-warming twist, they discover that a child’s laughter is a much easier and more powerful way of producing energy, and everything they built to maximize fear was repurposed to maximize joy instead.
Now imagine if this played out the other way around. Imagine that the monsters originally focused on maximizing energy by making children laugh as much as possible. Then one day, in a horrible twist, someone discovers that a child’s scream was a much easier and more powerful way of meeting their goals. Their company, which built a platform that gave them instant access to children around the world, suddenly realizes that they could reach their goals by spreading fear rather than joy.
What would they do with that?
This nightmare scenario is exactly what happened to social media. Originally they were there to connect people and let them share in each other’s joy. They couldn’t measure joy, but they could measure engagement, and so they did.
That measurement became their goal, and they focused on maximizing it. They built algorithms that could analyze millions of posts to determine which ones would get the most engagement, and it would promote those posts to a wider audience.
What they didn’t understand was that negative, divisive, hate-inspiring posts get more engagement than positive, supportive, kind posts do. The algorithm didn’t care whether the posts brought joy or anger, it only cared about whether they brought engagement. So in order to maximize engagement, the algorithm actively encourages and elevates posts that cause unhappiness among the platform’s users.
And those algorithms have been wildly successful. Social media networks that use them have seen massive growth in engagement. And they’ve also turned into simmering cesspools of toxic people and ideas. You have to actively curate your personal network just to keep all of that out. If you do, it’ll keep your feed positive, but it also reduces your engagement. Your happiness is bad for their metric.
Engagement is Value-Neutral
Community isn’t social media. Nobody joins your community for engagement. They join looking for support, or connections, to give back, or find meaningful relationships. Engagement is just the mechanism for delivering something of value, it’s not the value itself.
Measuring engagement doesn’t tell you if your community is happy, or healthy, or even accomplishing any of the things you were hoping it would accomplish. It doesn’t tell you if your community is upset, or toxic, or failing to accomplish anything. It doesn’t tell you if people are helping or hurting. All engagement tells you is how much of it they're doing.
Quantity over Quality
This is precisely why it’s become the primary community metric: it’s quantifiable. More than that, it’s *easily* quantifiable. You just count the number of posts, or comments, or likes, or page views you’re getting. It doesn’t matter what’s actually in them, only that they exist. But the fact that they exist isn’t valuable to you. And it’s not valuable to your community either.
If engagement is necessary to deliver value, why not measure it? Isn’t there value in knowing how much engagement you’re getting? Because engagement is value-neutral. Knowing how much engagement you have doesn’t tell you how much value you’re getting. It’s not even a good proxy measurement or leading indicator. You could deliver less value with more engagement, or more value with less engagement. At best it’s a vanity metric. At worst it’s ticking time bomb.
Let’s bring this back to community building. We still want our members to be happy, right? So why shouldn’t we measure engagement, as long as we don’t turn evil and try to maximize suffering?
Well, we’ve already made engagement our primary metric. There’s a metric ton of think pieces about how to boost your engagement. Engagement has taken over every other priority. “How do I increase my community’s engagement” is one the most commonly asked questions I see from community managers.
And we’re already struggling to keep it up with the demand for more. It’s hard to boost engagement by making a happy community happier, or a healthy community healthier, or reach new members when you’ve already reached the ones who need you.
Sooner or later somebody or some algorithm is going to realize that the easiest way to boost their engagement metric is to stop trying to make their community happy, and to start making their community angry.
And when that happens their engagement numbers are going to go through the roof. Your employer is going to see their numbers. Those numbers are going to become the new industry standard. Your goals are going to be set based on them. And there’s no way you’re going to be able to reach those goals by making your community members happy.
Measure what you value
I recently saw somebody say “We should measure what we value, not value what we measure”. Unfortunately for us, human psychology makes the latter inevitable. So our only hope is in the former, measuring what we value. Once again I want to emphasize that engagement is value-neutral. We shouldn’t measure it because it’s not what we should value.
So what should we value?
At the start of this, I said that people join your community for support, connection, opportunities to give back, and meaningful relationships. Those are the things they value, and those are the things you should value. And if you value them, you should measure them.
They’re not as easy to measure as engagement, sure, but they can be measured. The best part is that maximizing these metrics is always going to be good for your community.