The other day, I started thinking about one of my first “digital ideas meetings” at a magazine I used to work for, when “traffic”, “engagement”, and “unique users” were all strange new words we were trying to get our heads around. There was a big screen in the corner of the office where we could see how articles were performing in real time, which was both exhilarating and depressing, depending on whether your byline accompanied the piece sauntering to the top of the screen, or bobbing shamefully at the bottom.
The pieces I spent the most time and care on would rarely streak past the middle, whereas the listicles, the celebrity news stories, and the hastily written opinion pieces – such as the one time I drunkenly live blogged Naked Attraction – would take first place. (During one excruciating afternoon, I went head to head on the screen with my own dad. I’d blagged him tickets to see the then rather niche rock band Rival Sons and one of my bosses thought it would be funny to actually make him write the review, which went live the same morning as my own write up of Drake. My colleagues took enormous glee in shouting across the office, BALLS! (as was my name), MR BALLS IS BEATING YOU! (And so he was.)
Anyway, during these meetings, the shape of our ideas began to change. While in our print meetings, we would suggest pieces on trends, people, places and things we felt our readers ought to know about, our digital meetings began to invert. Instead of us predicting and curating culture, we would react to it. The internet would tell us what to do – negative headlines got more clicks, certain celebrities got more clicks, and, randomly, odd numbers in ‘what to watch’ round-ups got more clicks. One week, I remember an editor asking an intern to write a piece defending the controversial Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad, simply because it was ‘the opposite of what everyone else was saying’, and would therefore ‘perform well’ online. Pitches of hot takes became standard. I still remember that feeling of grubbiness – as if being commissioned by “the screen”.
While for several years publications veered wildly towards provocation and clickbait to feed the “metrics”, I think most of them are now on their way to finding balance. Many publications are using subscription models, so priorities have shifted from page views to satisfying paying customers, which dramatically changes the quality of content. Many publishers are adopting the less is more approach, after a manic period of trying to quite literally paper the internet.
But the “quantification” of things, of our lives, of ourselves, has never felt more oppressive. A few months ago James Vincent wrote an excellent longread for the Guardian about the “power of measurement in contemporary life”, tracing the roots of “metric fixation” to the 19th century when “management” was becoming its own profession and the industrial revolution was shifting labour from the manual to the mechanic. He quotes the journalist Gary Wolf, who in 2010, wrote a piece for the New York Times about how tracking everything from sleep to productivity was beginning to change the way we understood ourselves, and how the “creepy” spreadsheet had now replaced the “respectable” journal, with numbers proving more reassuring than language; efficiency more useful than self-exploration. He coined the term “the quantified self”.
“When we quantify ourselves, there isn’t the imperative to see through our daily existence into a truth buried at a deeper level,” wrote Wolf. “Instead, the self of our most trivial thoughts and actions, the self that, without technical help, we might barely notice or recall, is understood as the self we ought to get to know.”
While I have never been particularly fussed about wearable tech, though I can get paranoid about sleep and steps, recently I have noticed my increasing focus on metrics to measure my personal success. As our industry's obsession with "personal brands" has grown with social media, journalists are no longer solely judged on the quality of their thoughts or way with words but their "numbers". Writers who get the best stats get the most money (and the biggest jobs), while how many followers you have can swing a consultancy gig, a book deal or a column. I now obsess over everything from my podcast statistics (number of listeners, followers, reviews, retention time) to my newsletter numbers (readers, subscribers, open rate, links clicked), Instagram and Twitter dashboards. A drop in newsletter subscribers the other month sent me on an anxiety spiral, whereas a recent hike had me shot with serotonin. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly mindless, I’ll assess these several times a day, despite the numbers having changed by a fraction. I’ll do it at lunch with my friends, or in the toilet of a nightclub. What I’m looking for exactly, I have no idea, but I do know that the things that get the most hits are never the ones that I cared the most about. So far it hasn’t affected the work I do, but I am constantly thinking about how much more successful I would be if I followed the numbers.
Metrics, rather than thoughts and emotions, have come to define downtime, too, as, like so many journalists, the line between entertainment and work is blurred. How many films I’ve watched, episodes I’ve watched, podcasts I’ve listened to, articles I’ve read, I want to categorise it all into numbers lists to tick off and “complete”. The more I can cram onto a list and the more I can tick off, the more I feel like I have achieved. The more ‘productive’ I feel. But it’s impossible, of course, to consume so much with any real focus, and so I consume little fragments of everything: focussing on very little, moved by very little, remembering very little. When I close my eyes it’s like my brain is heaving with imaginary tabs that I can’t close.
Last Sunday evening, sitting on the sofa feeling content, I went through a mental checklist of things I had achieved this weekend: an hour in the gym, only three drinks yesterday, nine hours of sleep last night, less than two hours of phone screen time, two articles this morning and a book finally finished. I could fit in two episodes of a new show in this evening. Catching myself doing it, I wondered why on earth I was thinking about my weekend by numbers. Why wasn’t I assessing its value emotionally: by the conversations I’d had with friends, the sense of empowerment in the gym, the most moving part of my book, the most thought provoking opinions from those articles.
Thinking about our lives as a sequence of tasks and numbers is a by-product of hustle culture, which I recently wrote about in my post about the ‘anti-ambition’ movement. I often feel like my life is on autopilot, so busy that I have to judge each day’s success by the speed at which I can plough through a succession of tasks rather than anything more meaningful. It can be stifling creatively and can leave your brain craving ‘deep thought’ — the kind that can only be achieved on the 8th day of your holiday, one day before your flight home. Or the kind of agility for stories and make believe I had so much of as a child. It’s what inspired me to attend a fiction course last year, but I was unable to find more than half an hour to dedicate to writing one 600w short story a week, as homework. And so even these stories became a form of admin to add to the pile.
This week, I’ve been trying to disconnect from my mental to do list and obsession with self-analytics. I have successfully limited myself to checking my various stats once a day, have tried to write down a key thought from something I’ve read rather than mark it as a tab closed, taken my headphones off on the way to work to eavesdrop on people on the train, and tried to be more present in my conversations. And, while this may terrify some of my male readers, I am trying to think a little bit more emotionally.
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This week in links
I’ve been watching Triangle of Sadness, the new, much-hyped film by Ruben Östlund, who you might know as the director of The Square and Force Majeure (both excellent, so watch if you haven’t). It’s two and a half hours of fresh, pitch-perfect satire about a group of miscellaneous rich people aboard a superyacht. Östlund is brilliant at zeroing in on how people react to certain things (in Force Majeure, an avalanche; in The Square, a disturbing piece of performance art), and refusing to turn the camera away at the point others may lose interest. In Triangle of Sadness, it begins with a male character noticing his girlfriend has pretended not to see the bill arrive at their restaurant table, assuming he will pick it up. It’s White Lotus with bells on, and it comes out in cinemas early next month, so put it in your diaries now.
I have been commissioning lots of wonderful new female music writers, after a call out on Twitter to help rebalance my all-male line-up in an album round-up last week. You can read their excellent reviews of Julia Jacklin, Lou Reed and Altered Images here. Thank you to everyone who pitched and replied to my thread — sadly I can’t get back to you all as I received hundreds and hundreds of messages, but I’ll be getting in touch with more of you over the coming weeks and months.
I’ve been reading Helen Lewis on learning to drive in her thirties. As someone who is still traumatised from having failed two driving tests on both a manual and then an automatic with six and then seven majors — prompting both instructors to break up with me for fear of my ineptitude tarnishing their pass rating —I am tentatively inspired.
I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I was denied a fried egg in Battersea. While “brunching” (does putting it in quotation marks make me seem less punchable?) on Saturday, I asked for my eggs “fried”, assuming the fact they only offered them poached or scrambled on the menu was a typo. “Madam, we don’t do them fried,” a nervy waiter told me. Why on earth not? “Because no one has asked us for a fried egg in years”. There are much more serious issues caused by gentrification, I know, but the cancellation of the fried egg is an abomination. (And no, this is not the beginning of a Telegraph column.)
Thanks for reading Pass the Aux! Say hello on Twitter @eleanorhalls1 or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This is super insightful. The thought of editors commissioning pieces based primarily on the prospect of social media virality is super depressing! But noted your optimistic conclusion about a balance being reached.
Really enjoyed the honesty when it comes to quantifying our lives! Quality over quantity can be challenging but so much more gratifying!