I’m still not sure what precipitated it, but the other night at San Francisco’s Jackson Fillmore restaurant, over a couple large bowls of linguini with butter and cheese, my four year-old son raised his fork and tried to stab my two year-old daughter in the head. His mother quickly restrained him while I checked the white tablecloth for any signs of splattered blood or dislodged eyeballs. Once I confirmed no metal-to-flesh contact had been made, I delivered a classic parenthood right-of-passage line: “We never stab our family members with forks, especially in public.”
My son apologized. My daughter — magnanimous and probably more than a little relieved to be entirely intact — quickly forgave him. Unprompted, they hugged. It was an extended, cheek to cheek, smiling, giggling, It’s Gonna Be Us Against The World Long After We’ve Forgotten Your Droning Parental Speeches And Your Silly Overbearing Neurotic Rules About A Little Forkplay Hug. Soon, my wife and I were giggling too. Regardless of the preceding events, the moment was beautiful. The love, joy and gratitude I felt at that moment can’t be measured.
And that’s one of the things I liked most about it. I experienced something. I felt it. That was it. There was nothing to measure or count or rank.
The Internet measures everything. And I am a slave to those measurements. After so many years of pushing much of my life through this screen, I’ve started measuring my experiences and my sense of self-worth using the same metrics as the Internet uses to measure success. I check my stats relentlessly. The sad truth is that I spend more time measuring than I spend doing.
I used to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment when I wrote an article or came up with a joke that I thought was good. Now that feeling is always delayed until I see how the material does. How many views did my article get? Did it get mentioned the requisite number of times on Twitter and Facebook. I need to see the numbers.
And I define myself by those numbers.
I judge the quality of my writing by looking at the traffic to my articles. I assess the humor of my jokes by counting retweets. My status updates, shared links, and photos of my kids need a certain number of Likes to be a success. How am I doing? That depends on how many friends I have, how many followers, how much traffic.
My shrink recently asked me how my current projects are coming along. I said, “Let me put it this way. Lady Gaga has 10,329,595 more Twitter followers than I do.”
Sure, as the fork incident made clear, there are many ways to judge success, accomplishment and pleasure other than numerical rankings. I keep telling myself that. But the Internet keeps telling me the opposite.
A couple months ago, notable web designer Jeffrey Zeldman addressed this conundrum with a tweet: “Popularity on Twitter won’t cook you breakfast in the morning.”
My first reaction was to exclaim, “Yes, of course, Zeldman got it right!” My second reaction was to check how many retweets he got.
For the past several weeks, my friends Alex and Brian worked with me to design and build Delivereads, a service that enables me to send out a handful of great articles to the Kindle of anyone who subscribes. It’s a passion project. Everyone worked for free. Brian’s design is one of his best. Alex’s coding and workflow is fantastic. And the three of us had a great time working on the project. I couldn’t have been happier with the process and product.
Then it launched. And for two days, almost nothing happened. The numbers were not there. No traffic. No subscribers. The pride and fellowship I felt went out the window. I viewed the entire experience as a failure. I guaranteed my wife and friends that this was it. I was done with the web for good. The last decade and a half in this business had been one massive waste of time.
That all changed when, after getting some nice reviews from a couple of popular bloggers, the subscriptions started to pour in. With each refresh of my subscription numbers page, my self-esteem and pride inflated. I was back. I loved the web. I was a success.
But then I thought: what if I just stop refreshing that page? What if I try to stop judging the experience using Internet stats as my only yardstick? Of course, anyone who works on a site hopes that if you build, they will come. But the thing about this project that makes me most happy is the passion, joy and satisfaction I felt while working on it with two guys who I like building stuff with. And over the long haul, those feelings far outweigh any collection of numbers amassed on a stats page.
The project was great before anyone signed up. Period. I can’t put a number on it.
It’s a struggle, but I try to remind myself that there’s more to life than the rank order of things. I love this article. It is a pure reflection and honest confession of how coming of age on the Internet affected the way I perceive myself. You might like it. You might tweet about it or forward it or share it on Facebook. But no matter what the reaction, I’ll try to remember my opinion of these words right now, when it’s just me and them alone.
Last night my wife and I worked up our courage, loaded up the car, and took the kids out to another restaurant. On the way, my two year-old daughter called out from the backseat, “Mama and Dadda. I have to tell you something.”
“I didn’t choke Veronica in school today.”
And I was reminded again that the proudest achievements in life just can’t be measured.