Quantity over quality is making our lives feel empty

By J. W. Traphagan 4 minute Read

If you spend time on Twitter, you may notice regular tweets like, “so excited, almost to 500 followers!” People ask others to follow them, promising to follow back. And if you don’t follow back quickly, there’s a good chance the other person will unfollow you. Tweet often to get more followers, we are told. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat are no different. Even Venmo, which is for the purpose of transferring money, states, “Adding friends is an important part of the Venmo experience.” Clearly, we should want more money and more friends. It’s the quantity that matters.

 On social media, as in life, people are often focused on how much they can get or produce. It seems much less common to be focused on the quality of one’s tweets—or the quality of one’s followers and friends on social media—than it is to have a lot of either. The result is an endless shallowness, a monotony of empty tweets and remote acquaintances whose primary existences are experienced as amounts. 

The emphasis on quantity starts early. How many candies did you get on Halloween? A big haul is best. And at the most pernicious of all holidays, children are taught to value how many presents are under the Christmas tree, often with little concern for the quality or meaning of those presents. It stays with us as we age: How many cars do you own? How many children do you have? How many steps did I walk today? We even represent the value of individuals in terms of a quantity—we call it net worth. 

Counting permeates most aspects of our lives. Several years ago at my university, for example, upper-level administrators implemented a system in which they would count the number of butts in seats (a quantity) for each college and then allocate funds (another quantity) on the basis of whether or not a given college has met its assigned benchmark of butts (yet another quantity) for the year. Colleges that surpass the butt benchmark get more money; those that don’t get less. 

Why is this bad? Because, the endless emphasis on quantity distracts us from something much more important: Quality. Being focused on how many butts are in seats shifts attention away from the much more important question of the quality of learning and thinking that is going on in the classrooms (and among the students whose butts we are concerned with counting). This transforms the complex balance among different forms of knowledge production into a numbers game, privileging disciplines that can draw large numbers of students, like engineering and business, over those that don’t, like philosophy and cultural studies. 

It’s basically the same as counting followers on Twitter. And the emphasis on counting tends to promote the absence of quality, which as philosopher Robert Pirsig put it, “is the essence of squareness.”  And to be square is to be boring, conventional, uninteresting. In other words, it’s shallow.

We live in a “quantocracy.” We live in a society driven by the idea that everything must be counted and then judged on the basis of how many of something we have accumulated—more is usually better.  Indeed, it’s in the way we often approach networking that this problem is most clearly evident. Social media platforms encourage us to conceptualize our network in terms of how many people we are connected to, rather than in terms of the quality of the connections and the types of people with whom we are linked.

Although it may feel good to have a large number of followers on Twitter or Linkedin, or to see that number rising quickly, those numbers are empty. Why? Because quantocracies subordinate quality to quantity and generate an environment where counting, rather than understanding the meanings and values behind what is counted, becomes viewed as the goal in and of itself. What matters is how many? without a great deal of reflection on how good? 

Our society tells us to care about how much or how many we have of things, ideas, and even types of people. It devalues the much more important task of understanding the qualities, experiences, and meanings of those things, ideas, and people that shape our lives and bring us satisfaction and happiness. In our workplaces (and more generally in our lives), we need to ask a simple question: Do we want to live in a world driven by how much we have of everything or do we want to live in a world driven by the quality of what we have, our experiences, and our lives?

If we wish, both as individuals and as a society, to live in the latter, the first step is to stop counting everything. Rather than being concerned with the number of followers we have on Twitter or Linkedin, or the number of butts we have in college classroom seats, we might want to begin by asking about the qualities of the people who follow us and whom we follow or the features of education that generate responsible citizens and a healthy society.  

When it comes to networking, before following someone or being pleased that we were followed, we should ask questions like: Do we have similar interests? Does person X have views different from my own that challenge me to think in new ways? Is it, perhaps, better to have five followers make me think than 5,000 who only follow me because I followed them or because we have the same political views? If we were to emphasize the quality of connections in our networks, we might have far fewer numbers, but the strength of those networks would be stronger and our interactions with people across those networks would become a foundation for supporting interdependence and meaningful communication.  

J.W. Traphagan is a Professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures. Follow him on Twitter @John_Traphagan