Tag Archives: Data

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?

Off The Charts

6 Feb

ffeeeAt first glance, the chart to the left looks like an analysis of the things people do in a coffee shop. According to the chart, people spend more time buying and photographing their coffee than drinking the actual coffee. “Wow!” you think. “How interesting!” You want to share this fun fact with friends, so you start posting the chart on social media. Your friends also find this incredibly interesting. Until a particularly critical pal takes a closer look… and emails you to tell you the chart is completely bogus.

The image above from a Bold Italic series called “Made Up Charts.” All the data is fabricated and the charts are meant to entertain, not educate. This is an extreme example, of course, where it’s clearly labeled as fake. But while charts and graphs can be useful to digest information, their format also has a profound impact on the way people interpret information. According to a Cornell University study, people are more likely to believe information if a chart is included in the explanation. Two sets of people were shown descriptions of the same cold medicine. One description had charts and the other did not. Among those who didn’t see charts: 68% believed the medicine worked. Among those who saw charts: 97% of people believed the medicine worked.

This jump is significant. It shows just how much presentation matters, sometimes even more than the information we hope to convey. A chart makes people think information is more legitimate. We shouldn’t need charts to help us make decisions about what and who to believe. But graphic representation provides a credibility nudge, nonetheless.

Researchers have found a similar effect when studies or products claim to be “backed by science.” Just the suggestion that something is backed by science is all it takes: the materials don’t even need to include complex formulas. Simply listing a product’s ingredients in scientific terms, not layman’s terms, can be all it takes to make that product sound more “effective.”

Charts and graphs can be helpful, but we certainly shouldn’t let them affect how we interpret what we read. Pay attention to your reading habits. Are you more likely to believe something if there’s an official-looking chart? Do graphs feel particularly credible to you? Is your opinion swayed by presentation?

If you’re interested in learning other subtle ways we’re influenced by information architecture, check out Nudge. It’s a behavioral economics book with really interesting case studies.

Even if they’re bogus, or rather because they’re bogus, made up charts can be a lot of fun. Here are two of my favorite sources for humorous graphs:

The Annual Report (vol. 2)

11 Jan

Last year I wrote about a man named  Nicholas Felton who collects data on his daily life, then publishes an “annual report” for family and friends. His practice fits into the category of the “quantified self,” a phrase that’s getting hotter by the day. The “quantified self” refers to collecting data about your habits and practices to evaluate some aspect of behavior. Everyday it seems more devices emerge that track our personal “inputs,” from calories consumed to steps taken. Some think we might be at risk of mining too much personal data. Partly because companies or criminals could exploit it, and partly because it may just get burdensome to interpret every little thing you do.

What I like about Felton’s particular data set is its emphasis on the seemingly mundane. So much of what happens in our year isn’t social media share-worthy, or even text share-worthy. The bulk of our moments are made up of things like buying a quick snack, walking to the bus, and sitting in business meetings. Facebook’s “Year in Review” would certainly look different if it reported on things like that, wouldn’t it?

I don’t collect data to Felton’s degree of granularity so I can’t tell you every little mundane thing that happened to me this past year. But like I did last year, I decided to pull together an “annual report” with some fun facts and charts. The info below is based on rough notes in my personal journals. I could take it much further if I went into my online accounts – think about how much data we all have on ourselves! How would you measure your year?

travel 2014

basking 2

fun facts

One more thing: a quick round-up of the most popular posts on my blog for 2014. Thanks to all of you who read, comment, debate, etc. I love hearing from you!

39 posts published in 2014

Top 5 Posts – Not Food 

  1. What Is It Good For?
  2. A Touch of Class
  3. A Year Abroad
  4. Pay to Play
  5. Things Aren’t What They Seem

Top 5 Posts – Food 

  1. Buttery Goodness
  2. The Quandary of $4 Toast
  3. Something Unexpected (Recipe Round-Up)
  4. Tea for Thirty
  5. Potato, Potahto

How Do You Measure A Year in the Life?

30 Dec

Earlier this year I read an article about a designer who publishes an “Annual Report” about his life. Nicholas Felton uses a series of charts and data points to clue others into what’s happened to him in a given year. But unlike the Annual Reports you see in business, this isn’t about financial results and board member bios. Instead, Felton’s reports provide a glimpse into his daily life. And unlike traditional family holiday letters that focus on big accomplishments and personal changes, Felton’s reports span all parts of life. Throughout the year, he uses digital tools to capture mini-reports about where he goes, what he eats, who he sees, etc. His tool checks in on him every 90 minutes. Some reports end up being quite “exciting” – for example, a trip for a wedding. Others feel quite mundane – for example, data showing he’s at work more than most other places. But when you put all the details together, even the mundane ones, it creates a really fascinating infographic that measures a year in his life. For example, in 2012 he sent 47 reports from hotels and 185 from cabs. His most-visited store was a Safeway grocery store in Palo Alto. His least-social day was typically Sunday. He attended 12 live performances throughout the year.

Interestingly, Felton’s day job is designing the Facebook timeline. But unlike what we post on Facebook, his annual reports capture more than the “notable” (though let’s be honest, everyone has their own interpretation of what’s “notable” enough to share on Facebook!).  We may think that our years are defined by exciting trips and social celebrations and personal growth. But in reality, our yearly fabric is woven up of so much more than that.  Felton’s reports made me think about how I document my own life. I do keep some personal journals, but I certainly don’t write down how many times I go to the grocery store or see a particular person at work.

In honor of Felton’s idea, here are a few “data points” that help measure my 2013. I didn’t use as precise a tool as he did, of course, but thanks to my journals and online account management tools, it’s pretty simple to do some rough estimates.

Trips 2

baking

fun facts 2

And one last thing: here’s a quick round-up of what happened on this blog in 2013. As always, dear readers, thanks for tuning in to Culture Cookies. Hope to see you all back in 2014!

Top 5 Posts Published in 2013 (Non-Food)

  1. Holiday in Spain 
  2. Send My Regards
  3. Did I Get It?
  4. The Thrill of Traveling Alone
  5. Be Nice to Tourists

Top 5 Posts Published in 2013 (Food)

  1. Piece of Cake
  2. Wave the Flag
  3. Pumpkin Lovin’
  4. The British Are Coming!
  5. Full of Surprises
%d bloggers like this: