Infinite Feedback Will Make Us Crazy

Anyone who runs a website knows about Chartbeat, the addictive, sanity-ruining stats tool. And you should, too: The infinite feedback machine is coming for you.

Adam’s needle isn’t moving. “Three minutes in, it’s barely registering,” he says. “But it usually takes 10 minutes or so for something to start getting decent traction, so I won’t panic YET.”

Adam has just published an article on his site, Splitsider.com. It’s part two of an obsessively in-depth interview with the creator of the Nickelodeon kids’ show, Doug. And by his estimation—and mine—it has a good chance of getting a lot of traffic. Part one did very well.

The needle in question is part of an app called Chartbeat, which tells site operators and online writers exactly how many people are visiting their sites, where they came from, and what they’re doing, in real time. The instant someone arrives at a site, the needle jumps. When everyone leaves, it settles on empty. Somewhere in between lies the breadth of human experience. Sorry: Blogger experience.

Here’s the Chartbeat for AVC, a semi-popular VC blog that Chartbeat likes to use to show of its tech. And here’s one for a much larger site.

All that really distinguishes Chartbeat from old-style web stats is speed, but speed makes all the difference: Adam says Chartbeat’s frantic immediacy has driven him to a constant state of low-level anxiety. A good run on Chartbeat, he says, is like taking ecstasy: “While it’s happening you feel amazing, but you’ll crash, hard, in a couple days.”

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Chartbeat, or that it’s conceptually flawed. Quite the opposite: The advent of real-time stats was and is inevitable, and it’s tough to find former Chartbeat users (the drug analogy holds). The pitch for Chartbeat is instantly convincing and Tony Haile, the company’s CEO, delivers it well: “Historical data is good, but Chartbeat answers a different question: How do I adapt THIS piece of content to make it work?” Lux Alptraum, Fleshbot [NSFW] proprietor and (until recently) a Chartbeat user, sees it more as a post-mortem tool. “It’s this huge influx of data that you can’t necessarily do anything about at present, and it’s great for tracking patterns. I think a lot of people abuse it.”

This is the way things are now, for people like Adam and Lux. And soon, maybe, for everyone.

Imagine your own personal Chartbeat—or, to use BuzzFeed’s language, your own personal Viral Dashboard. This wouldn’t just track your blog, or your posts on a particular site. It would just track you: The number of people looking at your Facebook status updates right now; the number of people who are scrolling by your latest tweet; the number of people—recruiters, maybe!—filing through your LinkedIn profile; a constant and full accounting of every single eyeball turned toward your internet avatar. Imagine that needle, and those blinking numbers. Imagine sweating this kind of stuff, always and forever.

Right now, real-time web stats only affect your mood if you own, operate or work for a website. Personal stats wouldn’t be about anything but you. For a certain kind of super-savvy Internet Human the effect would no doubt be intoxicating. For most, it would be deflating, at best. One thing about Chartbeat’s numbers is that they’re never as high as they seem like they should be.

The kind of thing you don’t want to see on Chartbeat. Via Flickr: adwentures

The data to build something like this already lives on the servers at Facebook, Twitter, Google and StumbleUpon. There are plenty of reasons it can’t exist right now—when it comes to proprietary stats, at least, social networks aren’t big on sharing. But make no mistake: This is the way things are going. “I think it’s going to be a natural progression,” says Haile, who nonetheless can sympathize with his more neurotic users. “It can be like giving a speech and thinking, ‘Holy shit, my jokes are all dying.’ ”

Even ignoring the dozens of personal social monitoring tools, the trend is obvious: Facebook chat has become more prominent in every redesign, and tells you exactly who is both online and not interacting with your page. Twitter’s “Mentions” column has been replaced with the Activity Stream, which notifies you of every follow, favorite and retweet. iPhone texts tell you when they’ve been read, like BlackBerry messages before them. Klout exists. My email inbox moves like a slow-motion news ticker, reporting on me, me, and me (and me!): This thing has been liked. This other thing has been shared. You are being followed.

And speaking of email, oh god, I haven’t even mentioned Tout. It’s a little tool that lets you see exactly when, and for how long, people have read your emails. Here’s what a Tout inbox looks like:

Full awareness! The best part is that your recipients don’t even know they’re being watched. The tracking image Tout embeds in all your emails is invisible. If the idea of someone monitoring your email reading makes you uncomfortable, remember this: It’s not about you, really, it’s about them. It’s about feeding the stats machine.

***

When your speech doesn’t go over, you can take it to mean you need to write better speeches. When your ticker slows, though, what are you supposed to fix? These are not a rhetorical questions! They’re questions you’ll probably be asking yourself, soon.

Adam has used Chartbeat since the day he launched his site, and he has no plans to stop. But he’s refined his habits a little: It doesn’t get its own monitor anymore, for one, and he tries to limit his check-ins to one an hour.

Asked if he would ever in his life consider signing up for real-time personal feedback machine, he responded instantly: “No, never. Never never never.”

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Facebook Conversations
          
    More News
    Now Buzzing