On Metrics, Success, and Making the Internet Smarter

Luis von Ahn invented a language-learning program called Duolingo that plays like a game, and is free. It doesn’t even have ads. It is wildly successful and…

Wait. I said it is wildly successful. Is it?

Well, it certainly is! You might be thinking. It gets millions of visitors a day! But if we revisit the early part of the first paragraph we will recall that the goal of the program is to teach languages, not to get site visits. Is Duolingo successful at its own purported goals? Is it living up to its own ostensible mission?

While Duolingo certainly exposes learners to a foreign language, it is also clearly deficient in many ways, particularly in the speaking and listening areas. Other problems are brought up on the discussion boards. They haven’t invested much in evaluation of their product using experimental design (e.g., one study showed that people using Duolingo did well on placement tests, but there was no control group). What Duolingo calls immersion is really translation, because the whole model is to crowd-source a translation service. Despite these problems, Luis von Ahn is now frequently cited as an expert on language learning, or as an expert on online learning.

I have no problem with the guy, and I use Duolingo myself (I have a 200+ day streak in Spanish), but this is a good example of a trend to use the wrong metrics for things. We measure success of software that teaches foreign languages by how many visitors it attracts, and the fact that it puts learners to work instead of charging money. Writers become experts on writing because of book sales, even as we acknowledge that a lot of the best-selling books are not exemplars of literary craftsmanship. Reality TV stars get $30,000 speaking fees at universities, and former models get to be experts on pediatric medicine.

I’ve been interested in the preoccupation with the idea of “success” for a long time, but it’s probably too ingrained into the culture to change anybody’s mind. We will still continue to describe thrice-divorced, occasionally arrested, drug-abusing, child-estranged millionaire celebrities as successful while ignoring the wisdom of the happiest, most centered people we know (maybe a teacher, pastor, or neighbor with a garden), at least until they have the good sense to make a viral video and get on the Today Show.

Education is certainly suffering from wrong-metric-thinking, but even more is the realm of public discourse. The “success” of an article is measured by links and comments, and links and comments are bred by outrage, not by thoughtfulness. While people active on social media certainly post the occasional “nice article” link, these seem never to get get shared on by their friends and followers the way “can you believe this nonsense?” type links do. If a piece raises the hackles, it immediately explodes on social media, gets hundreds comments, and probably millions of views. And that’s the metric the publisher of the piece values, so it is likely that instead of feeling chastened by the public response, they are doing high fives and writing congratulatory emails to the authors.

This happens about once a week for me — sometimes more. In the past week I can think of at least two ridiculous pieces in the New York Times that got all the attention, ones that have gone on to a second generation of response articles, etc., which continues to raise the links and views of the articles everybody thought was terrible to begin with.

Which means — this is my point — we should realize that we control the metrics. We decide who the experts are. We can affect the direction of public discourse. We probably can’t convince any publication with ad-based revenue that links and views are bad, but we can invite our followers and friends to read and spread something smart and insightful. Imagine a world where “viral wisdom” is a thing.

One thought on “On Metrics, Success, and Making the Internet Smarter

  1. Somehow, maybe because of my parents’ moral sensibilities, I have always separated worldly-success from spiritual attainment. They don’t overlap very often.
    You put it so well in your post, Kurtis. The only power I have is whose audience and in what crowd I choose to be.

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