Catching up with the Times

The NY Times has carried a series of articles about personal statistics over the last week . . . and I was away for a couple of days so am just catching up.

In reverse order of publication, on Saturday the Times carried an essay by Alina Tugend about writers, an others, defining themselves by available online numbers: most emailed article, number of Twitter followers, Amazon sales rank. And why we care. But even though the article contains statements from authors and psychologists saying all the right things about what's wrong with measuring work this way, Ms. Tugend's article really misses the point of measurement.

Why do we measure? To find out what's happening in the world, or our corner of it. But it's important to remember to look at the right measurement, not the available one. Just because the Amazon sales ranking is there doesn't mean that it's a useful measure of how good, or popular, a book is. Sample sizes are very small, and, as Tugend points out, sales of only a few books can move a book up the list fast. With a concomitant drop the next day.

Equally important, context really does matter. Someone may write for intensely personal reasons -- reasons that are probably not reflected in Amazon sales figures. Why someone follows tweets; there's no doubt a context for that too. That's not a context I have yet imagined myself into, which brings me to my final point: the pool of users, or readers, or people with twitter accounts, or potential denominator (everyone who could potentially have a twitter account? everyone who might one day read a book?) might be huge.

And in this big a pool, with this little information, there's a lot of interpreting and not a lot of certainty. So looking at numbers like these is, well, beside the point.

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