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Metrics All the Way Down

According to Spotify, the value of one play of a Willie Nelson song in an Ole Miss dorm room at 4 a.m. is around 0.68 cents, but why stop there? When everything is data and data can be called down through the air, “song” and “book” and “movie” become embarrassing units, too big to measure anything. Meanwhile, streaming media services pitch themselves as nouveau lending libraries and swell to Babelian proportions. 

If Spotify and its ilk keep on this way, pretty soon they’ll be measuring content by nanoseconds consumed and parceling out ever tinier payments to artists to match. (Life as a member of the long tail means staring at one’s Amazon ranking, Uber rating, or AdWords royalty statement, willing it to change.) For content distributors—Netflix is the industry ideal, but there’s also Hulu, Tidal, Pandora, Oyster, Scribd, Amazon Instant Video, and other examples of “Netflix for X”—commoditized attention has always been the true product.

As content becomes virtually limitless, free, and unbundled, it’s somehow become more difficult to determine what it’s worth and to pay content creators a reasonable wage. Maybe it’s a reflection of our current monopoly capitalism, which has made cultural consumption indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism. Tearing through two seasons of a Netflix show or slamming a Soylent protein solution down your gullet seem like two versions of the same thing: bingeing, checking items off of life’s to-do list. 

With recent changes to the payment structure for Kindle Unlimited, its ebook lending library service, Amazon has reinvigorated these questions about how to value culture. Under its old system, Amazon paid its KDP Select writers after readers read 10 percent of a work—of a file, really. That arrangement incentivized authors to publish many separate pieces of content so that a story collection would instead be sold as a number of discrete, small works and possibly generate higher returns. (It’s not unlike the unbundling of media occurring elsewhere, as articles and video clips bounce around social networks, devoid of context.) 

Now, writers will get paid for each page read. The author’s payment will continue to come out of a larger KDP Select Global Fund, which varies monthly. But if readers consume four thousand pages of my books and two thousand of Stephen King’s, I’ll get twice as much money as him. Anticipating concerns about formatting, Amazon has even devised a Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count “to determine a book’s page count in a way that works across genres and devices.” It’s metrics all the way down.

KDP Select authors have to give Amazon exclusive rights to their work, which means they’re mostly powerless to do anything when the terms change—at least when Amazon controls 70 percent or more of the ebook market. Among them are many self-published authors, who remain divided over the changes, which seem to have fixed one problem while exposing others. What if a reader goes back and rereads sections? How is the size of the Select Global Fund determined? (No one knows, it seems.) Why does Amazon limit the amount of money a writer can earn each month?

The answers to these questions might come in future Amazon press releases, or the company may revamp the system once again. What seems clear, in this economic structure, is that power lies with those who devise the metrics and control the flow of information. The creators of information have little choice but to submit or to hope beyond hope that some competitor finds a way to offer better terms while replicating Amazon’s market reach. Once again, Amazon resembles Uber; both operate rigged private markets that they claim empower independent operators, who must in fact compete against one another for a limited pool of rewards.

If platform owners assess value on the basis of pages read or minutes engaged, why not do the same for other forms of work and production? In this area, the journalism industry is—contrary to type—well up to speed. For years, digital media has been cycling through new metrics, each supposedly more precise and useful than the last, each causing its own upheavals as resources and best practices are diverted to chasing numbers blessed by advertisers. Now, when they’re not giving it wholesale to Facebook, publishers debate whether their content should be valued through unique visitors, impressions, total time reading, or other bespoke statistics. Some media companies still offer writers traffic bonuses, reminding them how their value is ultimately determined.

And other work environments too—accounting firms, call centers, coffee shops—have embraced surveillance and employee analytics. Corporations already know plenty about how much it costs to hire, train, fire, and otherwise manage their office drones, and surveillance and wearable computing could help tailor these costs. (Wal-Mart has taken out secret life insurance policies on thousands of its workers, indicating that the company views workers as commodities that obsolesce as surely as this season’s smartphone.)

Call it a fascistic inversion of the communist “to each according to his ability” principle. Here the company would determine your ability—and your need, for that matter. In this perfectly technocratic, market-driven society, everything, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, would have its value known. Every thing would have its place.