On metrics, optimization and quantification

Reading the New York Times article Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception started me thinking about the enthusiastic attempts to measure everything that permeates the social media world in particular. From there, it was only a short jump to wondering whether and to what extent is it necessary to optimize everything, from website content to how much and what you eat. Read the NYT article for more shining examples.

Measuring is difficult to get right. You may have a perfect tool for it, but there’s always the danger that the basis of your measurements is somehow skewed, for example, not taking into account components that would affect the inferences. A case in point: social media ROI has been a hotly debated topic for some time, yet there seems to be a wide difference of opinion about what and how actually should be measured.

Another aspect of measuring is that it is, necessarily, based on what happened in the past. Drawing conclusions from history points you in the right direction most of the time, but as investment brokers are obliged to say, “past performance does not guarantee future results”.

Optimization is another double-edged sword. I hate waste and unused opportunities as much as the next guy, but you should also think about the return on effort, to coin a new term. An example: it may take you 15 minutes to write a blog post, but to optimize it from all angles easily takes you an hour, even more. Is it worth the resource investment?

If you’re producing a reasonable volume of quality content, it will probably appear in search results anyway. You know the Voltaire quote: the best is the worst enemy of good—meaning that if something is working all right, the effort to make it work perfectly may take so much effort as to make the whole exercise pointless.

Quantification, it seems to me, is being applied to almost everything. Again, it certainly increases our understanding of what has happened and is happening, but it is impossible to attach a numerical value to everything, particularly if it is supposed to relate to the future. Take philosophy or inventions: how do you predict the “performance” of a thought or an idea?

Now I have probably annoyed some metrics proponents, but that’s fine. I’m looking forward to having my thoughts poked full of holes. Go ahead. Just click the Comments link!

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