Follower Anxiety

If I could view an eye-tracking heat map of my ocular Facebook activity, I suspect there would be a deep red crater at the top right corner of the homepage. Even before the tab is loaded, it seems, my eye is trained on the spot where I know the globe icon will appear. (I wonder how much of Facebook’s bounce rate can be traced back to split-second decisions to leave the site upon finding an absence of that thrilling, red notification bubble.)

Twitter is a different story. If I had to guess, I would assume most people’s eyes lock onto the top of their timeline, diving right below Twitter’s earnest request to know “what’s happening.”

That’s not where I look.

I’m not sure when it started happening, but nowadays I find my gaze darting to the left side of the screen, to the space underneath my name and profile photo; the follower count. If you asked me at any normal point in my day to recite how many Twitter followers I have, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, yet somehow I can always sense whether the number that greets me upon a visit to the site’s homepage is higher or lower than before.

And when it’s lower? Uh-oh. What did I say to make someone leave? What line could I have crossed? I think back to my last tweet. I’ll probably even scrutinize the last several tweets I made, oftentimes reading them from the imagined perspective of the people whose follows I’m most afraid of losing.

It’s silly and petty, of course. It says more about my own flaws than it does anything about Twitter’s. But this does subtract from my experience of the site, regardless of whether or not it should.

Tumblr used to do the same thing to me. My eyes would jump not to whatever goofy, irreverent things my friends had “reblogged” that day, but to my follower count, plainly displayed on the home screen.

The old Tumblr UI, with one’s follower count appearing in the right column. Image source: Staff.Tumblr.com

I was relieved when Tumblr changed that bit of their UI several months ago. One’s own follower count is still visible from the home dashboard screen, but now it’s hidden behind a menu. You have to click on the “Account” icon for that information to appear.

My Tumblr follow count is now safely hidden behind this menu.

Once Tumblr made that tiny change to their dashboard design, my eyes couldn’t involuntarily dart to a number that caused me anxiety — however small that anxiety was, and however silly it was that that anxiety existed in the first place. My enjoyment of Tumblr increased — even if only by a little bit — as soon as that UI change was implemented. Now the first thing that grabs my attention when I visit the site is the content on my dashboard, not some ego-bruising number.

Sometimes it’s better to make information a little harder for the user to find. I suspect Amazon knows this when they don’t plaster the cost of your latest purchase across the front page of their site, for example. Same goes for a certain Twitter rival (that happens to boast about 1.4 billion more users) when they don’t remind you of your friend count every time you open your news feed.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy Twitter’s mobile experience better — one of the benefits of its stripped down UI is that it delivers my content without tempting my gaze with any potentially disheartening onscreen metrics.

You know, so I can focus my attention on the stuff that really matters.

TYBG