4 min read

Unquantifiable

The more information I got the more I longed to know nothing about any of it.
Unquantifiable

Not long after my ex Deborah and my brother Boris built my website in late 2003, I found out about Statcounter. It was a program that counted how many people looked at the things you put online. It told you which pages people looked at the most and how long they spent looking at them. It told where they lived. It showed pie charts in different colors depending on what was being measured. I was hooked almost instantly.

The first place that hosted my site was run by a couple of artist/entrepreneurs. I remember the guy's name was Mason Dixon. Guess he was into US history or borders or conflicts maybe. I think I traded a year or two of hosting time for a painting. We made the deal at Jinx Coffee on Division Street. I don't recall how it worked when I needed something changed or fixed on the site because Mr. Dixon and associates were hard to reach. I moved the site to a couple other hosts before settling it in the Hong Kong domicile in which it has resided since 2008. My new hosts could answer any dumb technical question I could come up with. They were the ones who showed me how to add code to every page on my site so Statcounter could measure even more precisely whose eyeballs were on my work at any given moment.

I spent days cut-and-pasting that code into what was by then hundreds of unique html pages, each connected to a photo of a painting or drawing. Then, each morning, I'd log into the control panel, and over my morning coffee and cigarette, scrutinize the numbers. I did this every day for several years. Not once after one of these sessions did I alter a brushstroke or pen mark in response to that morning's data. Yet I kept checking. Sometimes in the afternoons too. What was I hoping to find? Was there a figure or sum that would prove I was on the right track? A number that equaled success or accomplishment?

A few years into this hollow ritual, I decided to scrap it. That meant going through now over a thousand pages and deleting the Statcounter code. It took days. The mindless motion of opening a file, highlighting code, pressing 'delete', then 'save', then uploading a batch of fifty or a hundred updated files to the server, was somehow satisfying. It was the opposite of what I did with a brush or a pen, a kind of time-out for my brain and my heart, whatever other appendages and organs I used for art.

It's the same impulse that makes me decide to redesign my podcast site or change this newsletter. Each time it's like coming upon a mountain in my path, feeling both dread and the inevitable. Because I know the only way past is through it. And I know I can't stop myself and take an easier route. It always builds and builds until I have no choice.

But ever since I learned how to turn on a computer, this stat thing has been the bane of my existence. One of the healthiest decisions I ever made was quitting social media in 2015. That eliminated a ton of numbers and metrics from my everyday. Now I didn't have to 'like' anything ever again. By then I had no idea how many visitors my art site had. Unless someone took the time to write me an email or say something in person, I didn't know if anyone was looking at it and that brought me peace of mind. Every new service or app I try comes with some kind of stat component. The internet makes it very difficult not to quantify your every move.

When I moved my newsletter—which I'd been sending sporadically from my Gmail account—to Tinyletter, I had a weekly breakdown of 'opens' and other reader data. Each Monday I could look at a page that compared that day's performance to previous weeks. I couldn't not look at it even when I knew full well the knowledge gleaned was doing nothing good for my mental health. At Substack there were even more granular figures. I could practically find out what the reader was wearing and what room of their house they were in while reading my letter. The more information I got the more I longed to know nothing about any of it.

It wasn't until the newsletter moved here to Ghost that I found a way to disable the stats. As of a couple months ago, I don't know how many people open a letter or reread it. I have a ballpark figure of how many subscribers there are but only know for sure about the ones who pay monthly or yearly. I'm grateful for those but I don't plan on doing anything specific to increase their cohort.

The new podcast setup gives me even less data. I know nothing about my listeners or even if I have any. A few times every week I catch myself opening the page that used to have the numbers only to recall I'd wiped it clean. Then I forget all about it and go work on actually making something.

I feel lighter. I know I have to keep consciously away from the numbers to feel even remotely sane. It's the opposite of everything this thing is built for.

—Wednesday I talk to musician Matt Lux. But you can listen to the one with Tom Shannon or the one where I read from some books or some others while you wait.