Melissa Merli's Art Beat: Quality over Quantity

OK, 'fess up, Facebook users. After posting a comment or photo, do you go back to see how many "likes" or "shares" it received? Do you keep track of the number of "friends" you have? Do you compare that to those of other Facebook users?

Ben Grosser admitted he has. In fact, already being obsessed with quantifiers, he soon became obsessive about the numbers on his Facebook feed.

So much so that "I was looking to see how many comments I was receiving and not at who wrote what or what they wrote," he said. "It really turned into a focus on quantity and not quality."

Grosser, an artist, composer and computer programmer, soon wondered how he could change the Facebook experience for himself and its 1 billion other users.

What would happen if the numbers weren't there? he thought.

To eliminate them, he came up with the Facebook Demetricator, an open-source Web browser extension. He launched it in mid-October; so far 6,000 to 7,000 folks have downloaded the Demetricator.

In addition to picking up users, Grosser's Web browser extension, written in Javascript, has received attention from online and print publications worldwide, including a major newspaper in Italy, and from Rhizome, a website that covers emerging artistic practices that engage technology.

In mid-November, Grosser gave Rhizome detailed answers via email to questions about his Demetricator. I copy the most salient here, though I chatted with Grosser, whose work I follow and who is (disclosure) a Facebook friend of mine:

"Most simply, Facebook Demetricator changes how Facebook looks to its users by hiding all the metrics within the interface. For example, if the text under someone's photo says 'You and 4 other people like this,' Demetricator will change it to 'You and other people like this.' Under an ad, '23,413 people like this' becomes 'people like this.' '8 mutual friends' becomes 'mutual friends.'

"The user can still click on a link and count up their mutual friends if they care about reducing them to a single count, but under the influence of Demetricator, that foregrounded quantification is no longer visible. These removals happen everywhere: on the news feed, the profile, the events page, within pop-ups, etc. Users can toggle the demetrication, turning it on or off when desired. Its default state is on (numbers hidden)."

Grosser also told Rhizome his Demetricator is not "a brute-force removal of all numbers within the site, but instead a targeted operation that focuses on only those places where Facebook has chosen to reveal a count from their database.

"Thus, numbers a user writes into their status, their times for an event, etc., are not removed," he said.

Feedback has been both positive and negative. Lots of users have told Grosser the Demetricator reduces their anxiety when using Facebook.

"They don't feel that same kind of inherent competitive relationship to Facebook," he told me. "They're not constantly looking to see whether they get more likes than others or have more friends than this other person."

Others, particularly people who receive a lot of likes for their posts, have told Grosser the numbers are important to them, that they don't want them erased.

And at her blog, Jena Fanelli wrote she believes the Demetricator sucks all of the fun out of Facebook.

"My thoughts are that this just takes away the point of Facebook while limiting stalking," she wrote.

Facebook itself is apparently on to Grosser. In his computer logs, he can see that Facebook employees are downloading his program.

"I presume they would be interested in seeing anything that would be adjusting the interface," he said. "It's possible they're interested in seeing whether it becomes popular. The interesting question for me is would Facebook adopt a demetricated interface if it had what they perceive as a positive effect on the system? Or if they think it's negative, would they try to block it?"

He believes he's the first to have created a demetrication system for Facebook. It inspired others to come up with similar programs. Grosser knows of at least three others: one for a Russian clone of Facebook, another for Twitter and another for Reddit, a social news site.

Grosser, 42, has created computer programs since he was 10 years old. His father, Fred, a lawyer, was among the first to use computers in his law office as well as at home.

"He was interested in programming, too," Grosser said. "We got the first computer in the house around 1980."

Eight years later, Grosser graduated from Champaign Central High and went on to the University of Illinois, where he obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in music composition and continued to pursue his interest in computers.

For 12 years, he had a great job as director of the Imaging Technology Group at the Beckman Institute at the UI. He loved it but gave it up to make art that engages with technology and to go back to school.

He is now finishing his last year in the three-year master's of fine arts degree program in new media in the UI's School of Art + Design. The Facebook Demetricator will be the subject of his written master of fine arts thesis, and for the MFA show itself, he will create a new piece based on his Demetricator.

Among other programs that Grosser has created is an automated robotic painting machine — a computer-controlled machine that picks up paint and moves and puts it on a canvas. Like the Demetricator, that project also received a lot of media attention. Grosser said his painting machine project is currently on hiatus, but he plans eventually to return to it.

Grosser doesn't know exactly what he will do after he receives his MFA; he hopes to continue to focus on making art and teaching artists, as he does now at the UI. He also will continue to focus on software, in how its design changes who we are and how we interact with people, and how, by design, it leads to certain kinds of things and not other things.

"Whatever work I make, it's usually looking at some kind of software system," he said. "Software is at the heart of everything we do these days, everything that drives us and that allows the technology to interact."

Meanwhile, Grosser will show some of his software soon in group art exhibitions in Lexington, Ky., and New York City. And in March, Grosser, who lives in Urbana, will travel to Amsterdam to speak about his Facebook Demetricator during the Institute of Network Cultures' second Amsterdam edition of the Unlike Us conference.

Doin' good

On my big birthday, the day before Thanksgiving, I celebrated at The Iron Post, where three local bands performed to raise money for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. This annual event around Thanksgiving, organized by band leader Morgan Powell of Champaign, is shaping up as one of the most fun events of the year.

I ended up giving $30 to the food bank — $10 for admission and $20 for the chance to win a raffle. Lisa Lund won the 50-50 raffle and gave all of it to the food bank. That's also become a tradition: Each year, the winner turns over his or her winnings to the food bank.

Altogether, the benefit brought in $1,723. With the food bank's matching grant programs from various foundations, that amounts to $17,230 in food for the community.

Performing at the event were Dorothy Martirano's Almost "A" Quintet, the Traditional Jazz Orchestra and Bruiser Rummenie's the Impalas, with Dawna Nelson. A friend who doesn't go out much caught Martirano's act and was impressed with the violinist — and the quality of the music.

After the first two acts, friends and I went over to The Great Impasta for dinner and to hear the gorgeous piano stylings of Donnie Heitler. He plays at the Impasta every Wednesday evening, and I'm so glad he was there that night.

UI theater alums

— UI theater program alumnus Joe Foust, currently appearing in the Goodman Theatre's "Christmas Carol" in Chicago, will have a guest spot on the NBC TV series "Parks and Recreation." He will be in a scene with former UI attendee Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson, one of the lead roles. This show is funny!

— Earlier this fall, brothers Brandon and Jason Dirden, 2003 and '06 UI MFA acting alumni, respectively, appeared as brothers in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Topdog/Underdog" at the Two River Theater Company in New York. Anita Gates of The New York Times praised their performances.

Now Christopher Isherwood, also of the Times, gave the Dirdens good reviews in the Signature Theatre Company's revival of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," also a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It runs through Dec. 16 in New York.

"Boy Willie (Brandon Dirden), whose arrival in Pittsburgh sets the play in motion, is determined to grab the big chance that has come his way. He blows into the living room of the house where the play is set like a fierce gust of wind, brimming with excited talk of the strange doings down South that have brought him here. As portrayed with heat-generating intensity by Mr. Dirden, Boy Willie seems filled to bursting with ambition, excitement and hope," Isherwood wrote.

The critic described Jason as wonderfully funny and touching as Lymon, Boy Willie's friend.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

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