Tag Archives: Behavior

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?


The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr

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.


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.


Fanning Out

17 Jan

I recently clickbaited my way over to Entertainment Weekly. I don’t even remember why. But once I got there, a photo feature caught my eye. And whattya know: I had to click again.

What got my attention? A gallery of fan photos, compiled for what EW calls “Fanuary.” The gallery shows music fans spanning from 1943 to 2015. From Sinatra to Beyonce, the photos have many things in common: excited fans, some crying from the sheer glee of seeing one of their favorite celebrities up close. People clutching signs for their celebrity of choice, or maybe even dressed up in tribute. Smiles all around, tinged with a bit of disbelief.


From EW, Sinatra fans in 1943

I think that’s the point of this particular feature: the sameness of fandom over the years, across music genres and personality types. As you click through, it’s certainly striking to see the commonalities. But I also noticed a big shift over the years, clicking through. As you progress in time you see a big evolution in the way that fans captured these special moments. The fans in the 1943 Frank Sinatra picture hold up pens and paper to get his autograph. You start seeing personal cameras pop up in the 80s, but they’re not very common until the 00’s. By 2003, a gaggle of screaming *Nsync fans holds up a mix of point-and-shoot and disposable cameras. In a 2009 picture of Taylor Swift fans, the crowd is full of point-and-shoots. And by a 2011 One Direction concert, cell phones are prominent in the front row.


From EW, Justin Bieber fans in 2013

The newest images in the gallery look like a sea of cell phones. These days, our cell phones are always at the ready to help us remember, whether or not the moment is truly “worth” capturing. I do think today’s cell phone culture can often take away from the moment, distracting us from what we’re doing, ironically, by “saving” it for later. But: I’m sure the Sinatra fans would have been grateful for a way to visually capture their memories of seeing Sinatra live. And they probably also would have loved posting a picture to Facebook to celebrate their triumphant moment meeting their idol. I have a lot of negative opinions about cell phone cameras, but the power they give us to remember happy moments is undeniable. The ability to take innumerable free photos gives us so much more capacity to record the world around us. Think about how many more photos you take today than you took even 5 years ago. There is a happy medium between people who take selfies every 2 seconds, and using our cell phones to build memories. When I go see my favorite artists, I certainly snap pictures, too. Of course my cell phone camera stinks, so all my pictures come out blurry…. but hey, at least the timestamp helps me remember which blurry celebrity is which, right?


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Just Wasting My Time

20 Dec

The other day we requested an Uber and the wait time said 7 minutes. “7 minutes!,” we exclaimed with profound exasperation. “Why is it so far away?!”

A few years ago, that 7 minute wait would have been a godsend. The San Francisco cab scene was tough when I first moved here. It was hard to hail them on the street, so I’d have to call a cab company directly and usually was given a wait time of ~30 minutes. An actual wait of 30 minutes meant you were lucky: sometimes they never showed up at all. I don’t really know why it was so terrible, because I didn’t have that many cab challenges back when I lived in Chicago. Still, it’s no wonder San Franciscans have so happily adapted the on-demand ride apps.

The thing is, now that we’re so thoroughly trained to expect “on-demand” service, our sense of time has shifted. We increasingly can order more instant goods and services, from manicures to groceries to package pick-up. It’s nice for so many reasons, but it’s also warping our sense of time. A 7-minute lull feels like a travesty, and injustice to our oh-so-busy and important lives.

We’ve being trained to think that every second needs to be used productively, and every action needs to be done efficiently. We feel like we’re “wasting” time when we can’t do anything with a particular sliver of moments. Think about how often you whip out your phone to “fill lulls” when you’re waiting or “not doing anything.” How often do you just stand still and WAIT for whatever it is that you need to happen- whether that’s waiting in line at the pharmacy or taking a 30-minute bus ride across town?

I’ve noticed myself much more sucked into my phone in the past year, and I am trying to stem it. I catch myself opening the Facebook app more often, reading my emails, checking the news. I’m trying to curb that, trying to curb the temptation to always be holding my phone, and always doing something.

For me, at least, I can’t blame it all on tech. I’m the queen of wanting to cram a lot into my days. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do something, all the time. I brought books for every car ride my family took, even if it was a 10-minute ride to a restaurant nearby. Being absorbed in those books meant I wasn’t absorbed in the world around me- and I don’t think mental absence via reading is really that much better than mental absence via phone Facebooking, in the end.

I’m trying to resist the urge to cram every minute of my day with “something.” Not every moment needs to be productive, or fruitful, or “used.” In 2016 I’m challenging myself to put the phone back down, my eyes back up.

Let Me Google That For You

18 Oct

The other day I decided to search for the word “cookie” on Google. Literally: “cookie.” No context, because I just wanted to see what would come up on top. And indeed, the results surprised me a bit. There was a nutritional table off to the right side and a picture of some pretty mediocre-looking chocolate chip cookies. Down in the actual search results, though, the first two results were about browser cookies- the kind that store info on your computer. The rest of the top 10 was a mix of browser cookies, and edible cookies. That surprised me, because I just naturally think of edible cookies. But is it fair to assume that’s “natural?”

CookieWhenever we type something into that search bar, Google has to predict what we’re asking about. Sometimes the results are spot-on. Other times, there’s a disambiguation problem, a spelling problem, or just not enough information for Google to do its job correctly. Searching a generic term like “cookie” didn’t really give Google enough information to help me out. Imagine you were a non-native speaker researching for a project and all you knew is you were supposed to do a report on “cookies.” But you didn’t know what kind. How would you handle these mixed results? Would you decide to write about food, or web lingo? Have you ever seen those lists of Google auto-completes? It’s funny to see what Google expects us to say, and it’s also funny to see what people actually are searching for.

The fact that I expected to see relevant results actually points out a perspective bias. I think about edible cookies a lot more than any other sort, so I expect Google to do the same. Plus, Google has a ton of data on my search habits and browser history, so I thought maybe that’d play a factor in how the results index. But, web cookies are likely more relevant to Google’s own bread and butter. Perhaps its indexing engines take that into account when they stack the results? I’m not really sure how their system works, of course, but I’m so intrigued by how the different factors must get weighed.

I do a lot of consumer research and whenever we ask people how they look up information on a given topic, they tell us that they go Google it. Google is a wonderful and powerful tool. I use it constantly for my own market research at work. But we have to remember that even the Great Google has bias in its results. No source can ever be completely un-biased; it’s just not possible. There is always some system classifying the information, and that classification order imparts bias. Whether it’s Google telling us which kind of cookies are most important, or a news source choosing what facts to share, we always have to dig deeper. You can’t just settle for the first few answers you find- you have to try to determine if they’re really the best answers. Imagine you were researching a controversial topic and the top 5 results all claimed the same point of view. Perhaps results 6-10 rebutted this point of view entirely. But if you never clicked past #5, you might assume there was only one possible answer and walk away mis-informed.

Just for kicks, here is a fun video mocking our Google searches:

And one last thing. Wondering about this post’s title? Check out Let Me Google That For You. This is snarky, so use it wisely. But when someone asks you a silly question they could just Google in 5 seconds… this lets you tell them that. lmgtfy

The Ghosts of Shopping Past

10 Sep

As much as we sometimes long to deny it, what we buy helps explain who we are. Whether you’re a minimalist or a shopaholic, your purchases tell part of your story. I’m convinced that the way you shop and what you buy leaves a sort of trail, like bread crumbs, that help others reconstruct who you are. Purchases, belongings and behaviors can provide surprising levels of insight. Peek into someone’s home and you’ll learn about who they are, what they care about, what they prioritize.

I’ve thought about buyer behavior a lot over the years, from many different angles. In college I wrote my thesis on the emergence of department stores and how they reshaped the way people consumed material goods. Using French literature as context, I delved into the sociocultural changes as Parisians shifted towards more conspicuous consumption. Now that I work in brand strategy, I look at consumer patterns from a mix of cultural, demographic and business perspectives.

But how often do you really look back at your own belongings and consider your own “purchase trail?” I’m in the middle of moving- so I’m doing this a lot right now. Every drawer that I empty, every box I pack, surfaces memories of bygone times and past beliefs. I recently read a great self-reflective Gawker article about using our consumption to explore our personal histories. Writer Lacey Donohue chronicled her 20s via her Amazon purchases, studying her purchase choices to reflect on different stages of her life. I loved the way Lacey reflected on the personal context of each purchase. She situated each purchase in her past, looking at where she was physically, mentally and emotionally. Her evolution over time shines through in what she was buying, and how she thought about those purchases.

I took inspiration from Lacey and took a gander through my own Amazon history to see what I could learn about myself. I actually think my life is better explained through my offline purchases: the impulse pastries, the cheap jewelry, the trip souvenirs. Still, I like that using an online purchase history neatly chronicles phases and needs. Looking back on 8 years of purchase histories, I learned that I mostly turn to Amazon for media- a rather old-school use of the book-retailer turned everything-retailer. A few of my favorite purchases are listed below- I got a good chuckle out of some of these!

Take a peek at your own buying history too- see what you can learn about yourself by looking at the ghosts of purchases past.

In 2007  I was still in college. First I ordered a bunch of books for a college course that analyzed literature across several world cultures. We did a lot of reading in that class- pretty much a book a week, with lots of quizzes and papers. I loved it. Then, that summer, I ordered.... Harry Potter. I specifically remember picking that HP book up from the post office after getting out of my ad agency internship, and devouring it over the next couple days. I never pre-order things, it's so funny I bothered ordering this book! 

The college-era books: In 2007 I was still in college and taking a ton of literature-focused courses. In January I ordered books for a course where we read about a book a week. It was a global studies class that examined books from around the globe on a variety of heavy-hitting topics. Then, that summer, I pre-ordered the newest Harry Potter novel. I’m actually surprised college-Felicia did that because I never pre-order anything these days. Does that mean I’ve gotten more patient, or just less into hype?

I won an iPad at my company talent show and then I bought things to go with said iPad. I also bought a therapy ball because, as you can see, I like to buy things to stretch out at home, I guess? I have no idea where that ball is, I've now realized. Hmm.

The tech accessories: I noticed I turn to Amazon for tech-related accessories and it’s definitely because of the reviews, which you just don’t get in-store. In 2013 I won an iPad Mini through a company talent show, and turned to Amazon for accessories. I rarely use that iPad though- in fact, I mostly used it last year when I needed an iOS-based device for dating apps that weren’t Android-friendly. In that same purchase I also bought therapy balls which is a funny combination, and also made me realize I have no idea where that ball is.

 in 2013 I made this super exciting purchase: a laundry rack, and a foam roller! Both were top notch choices, actually. And I was silly, and got the laundry rack shipped to my office, then carried it across town on the bus. The woman next to me on the very crowded bus kept eyeing the package. Not sure if she was admiring my purchase, or judging it, but I like to think she appreciated the fine beauty of a good drying rack.

The practical things: 2013 was a year of in-home self-care, apparently, because I also bought a foam roller from Amazon. I also got an Amazon gift card and used it to buy a giant drying rack for laundry. This is typical: I usually feel guilty spending gift cards or cash on anything fun vs. practical, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’re supposed to do with gift cards. I stupidly had the rack shipped to my office and had to carry it all the way home on the bus. It was not a good plan. The woman next to me kept eyeing the box and I like to think she was admiring it, but perhaps she was simply silently judging me. This rack was a serious upgrade from the cheap wooden peg version I had before. A+ purchase.

tastemaker 2014The food studies book: I love this book from author David Sax. I’ve recommended it to tons of people, I blogged about it twice, and in 2014 I bought this copy for a friend recovering from a broken leg. I think it nicely reflects my interest in the intersection of cultural studies, consumer behavior and food. Go buy it, friends!

expecting 2014The project research: I bought 3 copies of this parenting book so colleagues and I could learn every detail about feeding toddlers for a project on Toddler nutrition. I later gave all 3 copies away to colleagues who actually have kids. But in the meantime I learned a lot of fun facts about how to transition your child from formula, to solid foods. Fascinating, really.

This has to be my best Amazon purchase so far. Rainbow fishscale leggings to wear to Pride earlier this year.

The metallic leggings: This may be the best Amazon purchase I’ve ever made. Earlier this year I wanted metallic rainbow clothing to wear to Pride, and to Amazon I turned. I spent a lot of time combing through their wares, seeking things that were free to ship AND free to return if they didn’t fit- not a simple feat. And then I found these beautiful rainbow shiny leggings, just waiting to be danced in. Mission complete.

Digging In

30 May

Recently a Facebook friend posted a query to his virtual pals, asking if anyone knew why truck drivers leave their lights on when they’re parked at truck stops overnight. None of his friends knew the answer – but I couldn’t resist Googling it. I learned that sometimes it has to do with the engine, sometimes it has to do with safety, and sometimes it’s simply that the driver isn’t asleep at that particular moment (duh!). As I kept clicking, the minutes kept ticking. And soon, I’d spent a lot of time reading through various threads on a truck drivers’ forum- just because.

I get sucked into this sort of thing easily, probably more easily than most people. I just can’t resist trying to crack the answer. That insatiable curiosity explains how I’ve ended up in so many research-based positions over time, from my college days to my current job. I’m consistently fascinated by learning about new types of people. There’s just so much to know! Every subset of the human population has specific beliefs, behaviors and perceptions of reality. And it never gets old to learn about the intricacies.

I used to think about this a lot when I competed in baton twirling competitions. To the outsider’s perspective, baton twirling may seem like just another sport. But if you spend some time at a baton contest, you’ll notice all the rules, the expected behaviors, the cultural dynamics. It’s the same for any other subculture. Every subset of humans has its own cultural foundation.

Most people, though, never read through truck driver forums or visit baton contests just to try to understand. We travel to learn about other places and peoples, but we never can make it to everywhere. And even for someone like me, who spends a lot of time investigating particular subsets of the population, it’s pretty much impossible to learn about everyone, everywhere.

But shouldn’t we at least try? Maybe there’s some merit to spending a lot of time digging through “random” forums trying to understand another group of people. Maybe we should spend more time just Googling various types of people and seeing what we find. Maybe it’s worth our time to just type something into Google and click away for a couple of hours, trying to learn about the way another person constructs their world. We’ll still never be able to learn everything about every type of person – but we’ll build our own point of view, at least, by digging into someone else’s world.

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