The Problem With Shallow Metrics and Incongruent Comparisons

By Kimberlee Morrison 

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Twitter co-founder Evan Williams ignited controversy last month when he was quoted saying, “I don’t give a s—t if Instagram has more users.” The Fortune interview came following the announcement Instagram had reached 300 million users.

Ultimately, Williams’ point was that the number of users is a shallow metric, and comparing networks that serve different purposes based solely on this number is plain stupid. Williams dug into this concept a little deeper in a post on Medium.

Admitting that some might have seen his comments as trivializing the success of a very popular and well designed app, Williams also writes, “My rant was the result of increasing frustration with the one-dimensionality that those who report on, invest in, and build consumer Internet services talk about success.”

Indeed, there has been lots of comparison between the social networks among tech reporters and analysts. Facebook isn’t so good at surfacing news and Twitter has Facebook envy. None of it really matters, according to Williams because ultimately, “Twitter is what we wanted it to be,” Williams told Fortune. “It’s this realtime information network where […]  important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter.”

Another reason the user count is a useless metric for comparing Instagram and Twitter is because according to recent Pew data, half of Instagram users are on Twitter and vice versa. This data indicates that there’s a large overlap between the two audiences and that each network probably serves a different purpose.

Williams uses several examples to explain why not all metrics are relevant as a measure of success. He writes about a Medium post going viral, but readers stay on the site for a very short time. Instead, Medium prefers to measure TTR — or total time reading — to determine the value readers are getting.

Last year, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum took issue with squishy metrics like registered users, rather than measuring value based on how much time people spend in an app. Of course, when reporters and analysts latch on to these squishy metrics, we end up validating numbers that don’t really mean anything.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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