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The Numbers We Don't Know

Numbers can tell us a lot about technology, but only if we know them. Here are a few we don't.

Posted on March 4, 2012, at 1:20 p.m. ET

(Speaking of which: Email us if you do!)

The Facebook stalker index: How many people are looking at your Facebook right now, today, this week and forever? Or, more specifically, how many views do your Facebook photos have? You know, the ones with the bikini vs. the ones without. The ones with the bong vs. the ones without. Just IMAGINE.

Twitter averages: Twitter loovvees data, and they release a lot of it. Like, did you know that the average tweet is 67.9 characters long?

The company employs some of the best data scientists in the world, so it's fair to read meaning into the numbers they don't publish, like the average number of Twitter followers. Third party estimates peg the number at below 30. We're also curious about the number of people still using the egg avatar (millions!), the percentage of people with more than 1,000 followers (one or two?) and the percentage of people who've only tweeted once.

Dropped calls: Everyone hates their carriers, because cellphone service is expensive and uneven. What nobody is sure of, though, is how their carriers compare to others. Dropped calls are a serious source of frustration for pretty much anyone with a phone, so these numbers could confirm some already damaging perceptions, which could, I dunno, throw the entire industry into chaos? Or at least be a PR disaster for one or two carriers.

Real cellphone bills: Somewhere on each carrier's computers is an awful little spreadsheet: The real average bills, after fees and overage charges, for every single cell plan on every single phone. That is, what people actually pay every month, beyond what their plan advertised. It's higher than what listed on their sites and in their stores, but it's far more important. Some carriers'; would be higher than others, which would be seen--rightfully!--as evidence of dishonesty. Of course, nobody would come out looking good: If carrier one's $70 plans usually ends up costing users $80 and carrier two's costs $82, carrier one's customers are still going to be rightly pissed off.

Gadget failure rates: Product returns are private affairs, conducted discreetly by mail and telephone. But every hardware company on earth knows exactly how shitty their products are--that is, how many come back broken, and how many get replaced. Every gadget has a non-zero failure rate, and some are probably very high. Remember the Xbox red-ring-of-death debacle? Some reports pegged the Xbox failure rate at over 50 percent, but that was well after the fact.

Ad clickthroughs: Most free things on the Internet are supported by ads. But how many people actually click on, say, those 15-second Hulu video ads, or those YouTube caption ads? Not a whole lot! Maybe even fewer than you think. To know how many people click on these things is to know how bizarrely few people buoy so much of the Internet. It might also be scary to potential advertisers, who are usually pitched some--but not all--of a site's traffic and clickthrough numbers.

Real gadget profit margins: Thanks to sites like iSuppli we know how much the different parts of a gadget cost to buy. (Not much!) What we don't know is how much they cost to put together, to market, to ship and to package--the real margin, or markup. You might not feel so good about your brand new $500 iPad if you knew exactly how many times more of its price goes toward markup than to the workers who suffered to make it.


YouTube's laundered cash pile: Youtube receives and honors thousands of takedown notices for copyrighted videos every day. YouTube also makes money from advertisements. Users are given the option of claiming future ad revenue rather than taking an infringing video down, but regardless, prior ad revenue stays with Google. YouTube knows how many views the videos got before they disappeared, and how much they were worth.

How many people actually use Siri: Judging by the frequent-bordering-on-incessant advertising, Apple seems to think it's pretty cool. And it is! But I never really use it, and I never see people using it. The only data we have comes from Wolfram Alpha--a "Computational Knowledge Engine"--which Siri uses for math-y requests (Ask your iPhone, "What is Planck's Constant?"), and isn't conclusive: They say Siri makes up 25 percent of all their searches now, which sounds like a lot, but I guess can't imagine a whole lot of people were using Wolfram Alpha before? (For the record, this is the best ever Wolfram Alpha query.)

How many Kindles have been sold: Amazon has weirdly never disclosed more than the fact that they've sold "millions" of them. And books: How many ebooks have they moved? Again, probably a lot. But not enough to brag about? Oh and also: Nooks! Nook books! We know worryingly little about the future of books.

How much Spotify and Rdio have actually paid out to artists: Subscription music services are cheap, so there isn't a whole lot of money to go around. How much of this little pool goes to artists is a mystery, hidden behind non-disclosure agreements and vaguely outlined royalty structures. "Not much," say some. "A little more," say others. Everyone knows that the music industry is shrinking. These services will either reverse, stop, or drastically accelerate this trend. Also, not knowing makes it seem like artists are getting screwed.

How many iPod Classics Apple still sells: Just curious, really.