If there are two activities that have spiked during the Covid-19 epidemic they are digital advertising and social media. It is interesting to note that in theory these are two great antidotes against lockdown malaise. Digital advertising to help companies reach their customers despite distancing and social media to facilitate human connection in a world of isolation. Yet, a pernicious fallacy tends to afflict these pursuits, leading to significant unhappiness: surrogation.

To understand what surrogation is, we need to acknowledge two human tendencies. Firstly, we seek to simplify complexity and make the abstract tangible through the use of models and metrics. Secondly, we are creatures for whom games form an important part of our culture; homo ludens if you will. When presented with a metric we easily become focused on impacting it, a key pillar of the user experience design element known as gamification.

Human like games, which is fine, except when it gets us into trouble. Photo by Terry Vlisidis.

The problem occurs when you combine these two behaviours and you end up with surrogation, a phenomenon where people end up mistaking the metric for the outcome it is supposed to represent. In their original 2009 research paper the Choi, Hecht, and Tayler focused on compensation structures, but humans are just as susceptible when it comes to digital advertising and social media. With digital advertising it is easy to single-mindedly pursue conversions, whereas on social platforms it is practically de rigueur to obsess about likes.

Yet the reality is that both of these are hollow proxies for profitability and social connections. After all, it is eminently possible to deliver record breaking sales and yet be woefully unprofitable – just ask retailers desperately slashing their prices to clear out their excess inventory. Similarly, just because your social posts are accumulating likes this does not represent meaningful social connection in the slightest; likes are like empty calories for the soul.

In certain cases, organisations can even end up in a situation where through surrogation the metrics actually end up working against their desired outcome. For example, Wells Fargo's cross-selling metrics were supposed to build long term customer relations, yet they instead incentivised employees to open more than 3M accounts without customers' consent, causing a massive scandal. Ironically, achieving their success metrics lead to a resounding failure.

Apparently the more hashtags you use the more socially engaged you are. Photo by Jan Baborák.

There is another insidious effect of surrogation, in that a failure to positively impact a measure can be considered as a failure to achieve the outcome. As the controversial documentary The Social Dilemma observes, there has been a steep rise in suicide among adolescents. When you believe likes are the best measure of social acceptance, what does it say about you when your posts fail to garner them? Knowing this, who can ever be satisfied on social media?

For me, the lesson here is that while metrics are important in running a business and leaders need to make an effort to choose metrics that matter, there is an ethical imperative to ensure that people do not fall in the surrogation trap. Whether it negatively impacts employees or customers, leaders need to make sure that the metrics always work for, not against them. Now, whatever you do, please be sure to like this post. I crave the validation.

– Ryan