On the Folly of Personal Analytics

Remember how early personal web pages often included a ‘guest book’ for visitors to sign? Remember how bloggers used to place little ‘hit counters’ at the bottom of their sites? In one form or another, web analytics have been around about as long as the internet itself.

For as long as we have been posting digital content for the world to see, we have also wondered, “How many people are actually seeing this?”

Today, measuring and quantifying online activity is a full blown science and business. Virtually every website tracks where visitors are from, what they click, and how long they stay on each page. To ‘surf the web’ is to sail an ocean of conversion rates, key performance indicators, and statistical analysis. Even signing up for a free blog comes with the opportunity to drill down into visitor data.

Once upon a time, this site was a number-crunching machine, too. I would feel the euphoria of watching my stats ‘soar’ upon publishing a particularly ‘popular’ post. And the sit in the despair of an attention vacuum when other posts ‘didn’t connect’ with readers.

However, one day I had an epiphany: the impetus and passion to share ideas negates the importance of tracking analytics. I admit this proposition is equal parts unsexy and counter-intuitive, yes. But please allow me to unpack this idea.

I am driven to write in this space because I am compelled to articulate thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that have shifted my perception. For example, take the recent piece on Water Protectors: this article captures a moment of time in my personal evolution where my relationship with the world was significantly recalibrated. I want you — and anyone — to read Water Protectors because I think it represents a genuinely noteworthy set of observations and arguments. At very least, these ideas are important to me because they have changed me as a person.

But what good does it do for me to know how many ‘page hits’ Water Protectors has? If only one other person was ever going to read the article, would I have still written it anyway? Definitely. If an idea is worth sharing with the world, it must be no less important to share it with an individual. (After all, what are human conversations?)

Or consider this: let’s imagine that absolutely no one read Water Protectors. Would I decline to write about the next important lesson I learned simply because no one read my article about water? Of course not. The analytics for earlier blog posts had nothing to do with my compulsion for writing about water. In the same way, the number of page views for the water essay has nothing to do with my motivation for writing this piece.

The value of sharing an idea for the sake of the idea itself cannot be conflated with how many times the page is viewed.

To the extent that writers care principally about sharing ideas, I think we care less about web analytics. We write because ideas need to be written, not because we believe ‘page views’ have some intrinsic value. The zeitgeist of our times says that the metric for the value of an idea is synonymous with its popularity, shareability, and clickrate. We say it is a lie. If we measure the investment of our writing solely by its analytical return, we are no longer truth-seekers, philosophers, and concept architects — but perhaps something more akin to digital populists; submissive copywriters following the dictates of our algorithm overlord.

This is how I came to the decision to uninstall all the statistics and analytics tracking modules from this site. I arrived at a point where I didn’t event want to know how many people read this space because this knowledge neither has nor should have any useful input in determining what I will write about next. It is a distraction. A diversion. I don’t want to know how many people subscribe to my newsletter or podcast, either, for precisely the same reason. I write what I believe merits sharing. And even if no one ever read this post, the lack of audience has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not I will write again tomorrow.

The poverty of personal analytics is that we buy into the corporately sponsored dogma of our age: everything we do and think is meaningless unless other people ‘like’ it, too.

3 thoughts on “On the Folly of Personal Analytics

  1. Thanks for this post James. It fits into a spot in my own thinking that I’m allowing to evolve. I’m appreciative of the moments that emerge from reading your ideas.

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