When shallow metrics incentivize unethical behavior [video]

(Reading time: 1 minute, 33 seconds | Watch time: Up to you)

List member Rita Gayford replied to yesterday’s email with a few questions (shared with permission):

Hi Kyle

A friend once worked in a publicly-funded arts establishment and noticed that the visitor numbers were regularly “faked”… this was back in the (g)olden days when visitor numbers were recorded by a clicker machine system, which counted 1 whenever a human being walked past it. If attendance had been low on any given day, Staff would stand by the machine and wave their ankle back and forth until the numbers reached the desired daily average. 

Was this an ok thing to do?

As the gallery’s Arts Council funding depended solely on visitor numbers, was this bit of “fakery” morally justified? Do contemporary galleries and museums ever manipulate software to achieve similar questionable figures?


Thanks for writing in, Rita. My short answer to whether faking numbers is ok or justifiable is — No.

But I appreciate how employees would become frustrated about being graded on shallow, quantitative outcomes … Please feel free to say no, but would you mind if I quoted your email?


Yes you may quote my e-mail. I cannot say if gallery employees were happy to do what they did to bump up (recorded) visitor numbers. My memory is that it was an (unofficial) directive 'from above’. Funding, as you know, is a thorny subject.

What an awful position for an employee to be put in.

This exchange got me thinking about the importance of the metrics we use to communicate success. While it's not possible to control the metrics funders use, museums do have control over what metrics they use to gauge success internally. Why, then, do so many museums rely on such basic metrics, like website visits and pageviews, when it comes to audience behavior online.

For a change of pace, I took a walk and shot a quick video reply:

(The video has captions, so you can read/watch sound-free, and speed controls if you’re in a hurry. :)

As always, feel free to reply with your thoughts.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen