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But I Don’t Like That

11 Jun

Do you ever look at the personalized recommendations you get online and wonder where the algorithm went wrong? Maybe Netflix suggested movies you think you’d never watch, or Pandora suggested a playlist that feels totally off the rails. And you think to yourself: but I don’t like that kind of thing. Why would they suggest this?

Well…there’s usually a reason. But sometimes you can’t spot it. Websites and apps suggest content based on previous actions. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong signals to assume interest. Maybe you watched Bring It On to wax nostalgic with a junior high friend, but don’t actually want to see other movies from that time period or genre.

But what if sometimes you’re the one who’s wrong?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Vanderbilt sets out to explain how we develop our tastes, how psychology affects preference and how the modern age of never-ending-content and recommendation engines could change all of that. He cites an impressively broad mix of experts, from developers to academic researchers to philosophers.

One of the core claims is that we know less about our tastes than we think we do. We want to believe there’s logic to what we like, but can’t truly explain all of our preferences. That’s because too many factors play into our choices, from social norms to preconceived biases to generalizations. For example: maybe you love Justin Bieber, but you’d never say so in public because you think people might judge you. Or maybe you hate opera but pretend to like it, because you think that makes you sound cultured.

Turns out, we sort of stink at describing why we like what we like. But data is the great revealer. Companies like Spotify and Netflix know what you actually like based on your consumption patterns. You may say you love foreign films, but you’ve only watched one in the last five years. Meanwhile, you swear you hate chick flicks, but watch five a week. You can say whatever you want to your friends…but Netflix knows what’s up.

Sometimes, you’re explicitly trying to save face or establish expertise. But sometimes you don’t even realize the gap between what you say you like, and what you actually like. Sophisticated data programs can spot patterns we can’t discern on our own. Netflix has a classifications system that’s way more granular than typical genres, finding detailed connections between the types of things you tend to watch, and what you might want to see next. So even if you don’t always spot a connection between what you think you like, and what they recommend—it’s probably there. Try listening to one of Spotify’s curated playlists without looking at the screen. You’ll find you like songs that fall into genres you think you hate, and you hate songs that fall into genres you think you like. You’re actually more likely to find content that suits your tastes when you ignore the labels.

Vanderbilt’s book was on my mind as I read this article about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. I almost didn’t click, because the headline talked about her wedding dress—and I didn’t think I cared. But then I figured, why not? Dresses are pretty and it’s fun to learn about them. Clicccck.

I’m glad I took the bait, because the article was more commentary than couture. It talked about how the NYT decided on its coverage for Pippa’s wedding. This paragraph made me laugh pretty hard:

NYTimes coverage

People dissed the NYT for their wedding coverage, those wedding articles actually performed really well. Of course, it’s possible there were different audiences clicking the wedding content and complaining about it. But that’s not very likely, given how media works these days. It’s just that people didn’t want to believe they were interested in wedding content. They wanted to believe they had higher class tastes than wedding fodder…even as they secretly clicked to learn more.

Creepy? Yes, of course. But also pretty helpful, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you rather have data help you find things you’ll like, rather than wading through things you hate?

Into the Memory Box

16 Apr

When I walked into my childhood bedroom a couple of months ago, I found a plastic box sitting on my desk. The box held a scattered assortment of things my mom had found around the house: souvenirs from family trips, commemorative pins, jewelry I used to wear as a kid.

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Many of the things in that box felt pleasantly relevant today. A bracelet from my first trip to Paris, when I fell in love with the city and the language. The baton necklace isn’t something I’d actually wear today, but I still proudly call myself a baton twirler—and even taught a baton class at work last week. The cable car necklace, a souvenir from a family trip to San Francisco, is even more special now that I’ve lived in SF for 5 years.

But then we get to the gold necklace on the left, the one that looks like half a heart. That’s part of a classic friendship necklace, the kind that’s broken in two to symbolize everlasting friendship. Except…I have no idea who had the other half.

There’s something funny about that. At some point in time, I considered someone important enough to split a friendship necklace with them, declaring our everlasting friendship. And yet here we are, probably 20 years later, and I haven’t a clue who had the other half.

To be fair, those things weren’t exclusive relationships. I split friendship necklaces and bracelets with many people over the years…often at the same time. This necklace wasn’t like a written decree to ONLY be best friends with that one person, despite what “best” technically implies. I had several “best” friends, some “bester than others.” Even as a (word obsessed) kid, I found the fact that you could have more than 1 “best” friend a tad confusing. But I called lots of people my best friend back then.

So back to our mystery: who had the other half? My life swirled around over the years from school to school, hobby to hobby. I can think of many candidates for the other half, but nothing’s confirmed. Odds are that I’m not close to that person anymore, since my world changed so much over the years, and mostly shifted away from people I knew as a kid.

When I was really young, I accepted that friendships broke, and you moved on. You switched classes or changed levels at ballet or moved, and that’s just how things went. But as I got older, I resisted the idea of friendships that end. These days, I’m terrible at letting go of friendships. I hate the fact that someone who mattered so incredibly much to you at one point in life, could matter very little later on. It hurts to think about people who defined certain years of my memories, but no longer pop up in my world today. It pains me when someone drifts away, and I feel so incredibly bad when I’m the one who drifts away, too.  I want to keep all the people I like close, in my life, as much as I can.

But that’s just not how life works. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at accepting this truth about friendship: not all friendships last forever. The right people will stay in your life, and both sides have to put in effort and energy and care for that to happen. You have to invest in the relationships that mean the most and work the best. And you have to accept that sometimes, you’re just not someone else’s “friend priority” when they do their own round of investing and working and prioritizing.

I still treasure memories of people who meant something in the past, even if they’re not around now. I’m grateful for whoever had the other half of this necklace, because even if I can’t place who it is, I know they must have been important to me at a particular time in my life. I’m grateful that back then, they meant enough to me for us to declare ourselves BFFs, believing we’d be there for each other through thick and thin. Even if that didn’t last, maybe the true purpose of the necklace was the support it gave us at the time. Sometimes you just don’t end up BFFs, despite buying jewelry about it. Still, it’s nice to know that at some point, I felt so strongly about someone being meaningful that we should wear symbols of that friendship. And it’s nice to know that when I was young and needed that friendship, someone was there for me to wear the matching half.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.

 

Putting Words in Your Mouth

15 May

side by sideThese two pictures have a lot in common: both were taken at airports, both are retail displays, both display the same type of product. And yet, there’s something critically different. The left photo describes KIND Bars as “sweet treats,” while the right describes Clif Bars as “healthy snacks.”

Fundamentally, these are similar products. They’re both essentially trail mix bars, with ingredients like nuts, fruits and chocolate. Both manufacturers market their bars as healthy snacks, touting functional ingredients that add protein, antioxidants, etc. But when they’re given such explicit descriptions, suddenly the bars seem to serve different roles. KIND bars become an indulgence, while Clif Bars maintain a healthy halo.

These displays weren’t actually side-by-side; I happened to notice them a few days apart in San Francisco and Cleveland. But, let’s pretend they were next to each other. If I was trying to find a healthy snack in the sea of airport junk food, would I grab from the left, or the right? You can imagine the scenario where someone is making an impulse buy, and sees the two products with their respective signs. Let’s assume they know very little about either brand, and the signage helps them navigate their decision. Clif Bars would seem like a healthy choice, while KIND Bars would seem like a sweet pick-me-up. People buying the Clif Bar may pat themselves on the back for a “good” choice, while the KIND Bar buyers probably still pat themselves on the back for buying the KIND Bar instead of a candy bar.

health.pngThese displays are effectively positioning the products. They’re telling us how to categorize the options in our heads. They’re overruling whatever is written on the actual packaging, by framing the bars for us before we even go to pick them up. Take a look at how KIND describes its bars on the brand’s website. A far cry from indulgence, right? I’m sure the brand wouldn’t be happy to find its bars labeled as a sweet treat at the Cleveland airport.

When we shop, the retail environment is full of visual cues intended to influence what we buy. But while most grocery stores label their aisles with straightforward category names (deli, canned goods, etc.), these airport retailers have taken it a step further, classifying products by their perceived role. It’s a tad unfair to the product manufacturers, to be sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to consumers, because we should be making our own choices before we buy, regardless of what signs or packaging tell us. But if I were the KIND account manager responsible for airport retail – I’d reach out to that Cleveland store and fix this display situation, ASAP.

The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr
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Via YPulse

According to marketing agency YPulse, 50% of 18-33 year-olds say that getting a “like” on Facebook gives them a rush. This number goes down for younger audiences- but YPulse suspects it’s actually because “likes” are second-nature for them. They’ve grown up in a world of likes and retweets, so it’s possible that social media “affirmation” registers as a given. If you’re a teenager, you may not know life without social media. But for the rest of us, let’s think back to the days before we posted our lives and thoughts online. In a given day, we may have gotten compliments on our outfits, caught up with friends, or gotten into debates on heavy topics. But we didn’t have such a centralized, public platform to tell people about our lives. And so we didn’t have such instant access to affirmation – or lack thereof.

I believe that social media is net positive. On a given day, I may chat with a friend in France, pick up recipes from a friend in Los Angeles, learn about Chinese culture from a friend in Shanghai. I get to see baby pictures from friends who live far away, learn about events to attend, feel a sense of community with others living in San Francisco. Sometimes I worry I spend too much time online, sometimes I wonder about posting our lives as content – but overall, I think social media adds good to my world.

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Facebook briefly tested a tool that summed up likes for you. I joked about it- but also kind of liked it…

 

And if YPulse had surveyed me, I too would have answered “yes” to the question about getting a rush from likes. I love getting likes on social media and on my blogs. I like getting compliments in real life too. Who doesn’t? It feels good. When I post things on social media and nobody interacts with them, I definitely wonder why. It doesn’t impact my self-perception in any way, but I do catch myself analyzing what drove the lack of interaction. Was it simply that Facebook’s algorithm didn’t show my post to enough people? Was it the topic I wrote about? Was it the time of day when I posted?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the quantified self: using technology to record data about how we live, in the hopes of self-improvement. You can track every step you take, every minute of sleep. I understand how this can help us improve. But I hope we don’t also enter a phase of quantified self-worth. I hope that, despite the rush we get from people affirming us online, we remember that our value doesn’t depend on likes or retweets or shares. I hope we can reap the benefits of social media, without letting the potential downsides soak in. I hope we can continue to separate social media content from real life. I hope that in a time of “influencer strategy,” we remember that we’re more than our likes.

I’ll still get a rush if people like this post. And I’ll be excited if anyone chooses to message me about it, whether they agree or not. But I’m personally trying to see social media engagement as a potential conversation, and not a game or popularity contest. If nobody likes this blog post- so be it. There’s always next time.

 

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