Speaking into the Void

How measurement can alter our understanding of the world.

July 12, 2019

How do we measure…well, anything? In research design, operationalization describes how we transform the intangible into a measurable variable. How do you measure an abstract concept like violence or happiness? The trick is to tally some other variable which closely correlates with the desired variable.

Of course, any such measure isn’t going to be perfect. In fact, bad assumptions behind operationalizations can easily throw everything off. Thus this is often the step where research gets messy. By definition, if the construct could be empirically measured, an operationalization wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. This leaves open room for a disconnect, which risks pushing the researcher toward an incorrect conclusion.

Take this example. You want to know how much I like the taste of coffee. To measure this, you take samples of my coffee consumption over time. The assumption behind this operationalization is that the more I like the taste of coffee, the more I would consume. Now if you sampled my beverage consumption some weeks, you might conclude that I don’t like coffee at all: bodies are fragile things and sometimes I must forgo my daily cup(s)-of-joe for my health. Do my periods avoiding coffee mean I don’t like it? Hardly, but if we tried to measure enjoyment of a beverage through these samples, we might end up reaching the wrong conclusion: that I don’t like coffee 1, when in reality I am just avoiding the potential for acid reflux.

1 You could make the counterargument here that enjoyment includes the entire experience of consumption. In this case, it would include the potential for acid reflux, which is enough to sour the entire experience. This is a fair point.

What’s the goal?

Operationalization becomes particularly important when organizations handle large quantities of data at scale. At a certain point, data become too overwhelming for a system based on manual decision-making. The usual response becomes automation, which can have unconsidered second-order effects.

A few years ago, YouTube made a big change when they redefined they mean by a “view”. The site used to run rampant with clickbait content that people would only watch for maybe a few seconds at most. Because views were the important measure and because even the shortest watch-time counted for a view, this incentivized some to create a lot of bad content—the kind that people would click away from within seconds. In short, YouTube’s operationalization for views encouraged spam and click-bait.

They changed this several years ago, making their definition more subtle and contextual. You might notice that I’m being pretty vague here. That’s intentional as YouTube does not release a lot themselves on how they count views. After all, if they told people their precise methods, that would make it easier to cheat.

Views, however, are no longer king on the site. Instead, YouTube has moved toward “time watched” as its primary metric. This is harder to game and rewards videos that keep people glued to the site for longer periods of time.

This thought dump goes back to motivation. Why do I write? Why do I post online? Who is my audience and what do they (and I) want?

If there is one thing I’ve learned about myself, it is that I can be highly motivated by boredom. I’m happiest with my mind engaged on solving some problem—even one of my own creation. So that’s kind of what I plan to do, at least for the time being. I think there’s a huge pressure in many online spaces to reduce yourself to a brand. YouTube, for instance, suggests channels discover and stick to a specific niche. Fair advice if you are trying to grow on the platform, but this approach may not be best for everyone.

In my head, my niche is broad: media. It’s what I study and my primary personal interest as well. A lot of things fit in that label: I define media as tools which transform our view of space and time. This is pretty broad2. I see the overlap, but it’s less clear if anyone else would. No matter.

2 And this is also clearly inspired by Harold Innis.

Who sets the goal?

It’s easy to simply chase goals without realizing it. What is the “goal” of a place like Facebook? I’d say it’s to connect with people, but in practice I mostly just lurk and occasionally like. In effect, I follow Facebook’s designed for consumption: open the website, scroll infinitely, and occasionally interact with some content so they can collect information on your interests.

I think it’s important to be clear, honest, and intentional to ourselves about what we want out of a platform. Otherwise, we tend to drift toward the default behavior. And that behavior is rarely in our best interest.