Home > data > Juking the stats – WordPress and social proof

Juking the stats – WordPress and social proof

Sign that shows addition of established date to elevation to population

“Unnecessary Math” – via slaya771 on reddit http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/1d3zs9/unnecessary_math/

Everyone with a basic science education knows that you cannot add quantities whose units do not match; you cannot add population to elevation, for instance, as the picture shows.

This does not stop companies from doing something that’s arguably worse, as it’s harder to detect and call them on their BS.

Take WordPress.com. I use them as my blogging platform and I’m overall happy with them. WordPress allows you to customize your blog by inserting widgets. I have the “Follow Blog: Email Subscription” widget installed. Here is what it looks like to readers:

Email Subscription. Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. Join 220 other followers

Here is what readers who are not email subscribers saw

This number is a lie. In my stats page I can see the truth – there are really only 41 email subscribers. The rest are following me on Twitter. When I post on WordPress, it automatically sends a tweet with a link to the post.

Only 41 email subscribers, NOT 201.

Only 41 email subscribers, NOT 220.

WordPress adds my Twitter follower count to my email subscriber count, and then implies that all of them are following my blog via email. Read the wording again. “Join 220 other followers”, right above a text box for email address entry.

First, why would WordPress do this?

I see two main possibilities.

One, it’s an honest mistake. The backend system has some field for ‘followers’ which is always computed by summing up all the different follower types, and this field was inadvertently used rather than the email follower count. I tried to contact WordPress about this on Monday, August 25, 2014 but have not yet received a response.

The second possibility is that it’s deliberate. The subscriber count is a form of social proof, which lets readers gauge the quality of the site. My hypothesis is that WordPress has empirical evidence that a higher number of followers displayed in this widget leads to increased follow rate. You could imagine A/B experiments where some visitors see the true count, and the others see the value doubled, and measure the difference. Or conversely, take away the follower count from that text and see if the follow rate drops.

The second question is, why does it matter?

While it’s not as wrong as adding elevation to population, as the image that started this post shows, it’s still wrong. The units are right in the sense that you are adding counts of people to counts of people. But all followers are not created equal. People could follow me on Twitter for any number of reasons, while not caring at all about my blog. Conversely, people who choose to explicitly sign up for email notifications of new posts are showing a drastically different level of intent. To call them both followers and to insert them in a widget that purports to show email subscribers is disingenuous.

Fortunately the widget has an option to disable the follower count altogether, and from now on I am going to do just that.

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