Big (Small) Data: What Really Counts in the Age of Oversharing?
From the Spring 2012 OPEN magazine cover story, "The Big Data Machine."
By Rob Walker ’90 (RTF)
The great promise of social networking is that it connects us to those we care about in unprecedented ways. But even the most ardent social-media enthusiast, actively engaging through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc., has to admit that keeping up with it all is a major challenge.
We generally think of “information overload” in the context of the 24-hour news environment—the challenge of sorting through the noise to stay current on events that really matter. As the amount of available information has proliferated, companies are developing tools to help them manage the overload to their competitive advantage. This abundance of statistics, figures, preferences, demographics and the like is known as Big Data. Social media has brought us a somewhat different phenomenon: Let’s call it Big (Small) Data.
Here’s what it looks like. One morning recently, I take a few minutes to see what’s up with my 272 Facebook friends. Two of them, in New York, have uploaded uncaptioned pictures taken with their mobile phones—something from a museum exhibition and something involving people I don’t recognize at a café. A friend in Colorado quotes from a movie review. Another, in L.A. reveals, via Foursquare, that he’s arrived at a studio building in Culver City. A San Diego friend shares her “holiday food prep agenda,” which involves “four pies.” Spotify’s Facebook plug-in reports that a friend in Boston has just listened to “Yesterday and Today,” by The Field.
By now I’m zoning out, but in a fast zoom down the page, a snapshot by a friend here in Savannah catches my eye; a college pal in Austin has linked to an e.e. cummings poem; another college friend, now in Brooklyn, points to the latest post on his blog; someone I went to high school with has linked to a Mahalia Jackson video on YouTube; and a buddy from my New Orleans days who now lives in San Francisco announces he’ll be “Facebook-dark” for the next week.
You get the idea—but don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not making the familiar complaint that the Internet or social media is a useless drain on my valuable time, and we’d all be better off reading Thoreau in a cabin with no electricity. The truth is I want to know what these people are up to, and I’m okay with that entailing some trivialities.
The problem: I don’t want to miss anything important. I remember being elated that Facebook had re-connected me with a long-lost friend in Texas. I also remember being really irritated, when I was headed to Houston a year later and thought I might visit her, to discover that in the meantime she had moved to Africa.
That’s the tricky thing about mastering Big (Small) Data. Businesses and trend-watchers mine social media and other data sources to extract patterns. But it’s particularity, not the pattern, that matters to the individual. That is, it’s not about knowing that a lot of your friends are buzzing about “Downton Abbey” heir scenarios. It’s about not missing the one crucial status update or tweet disclosing that one of your friends is getting married.
I suspect that tools for coping with Big (Small) Data will proliferate widely in the months and years ahead. Indeed, it’s already happening. Facebook’s latest redesign gives users the ability to tag “life events,” which friends can use as a filtering device. But that’s just a start.
A stark example of where we may be headed is a newish Facebook application called Shopycat. Created by Wal-Mart, the app is designed to assess the activity of your Facebook contacts (what they “like,” what they discuss in their status updates) and offer you gift-giving advice. “Since gifting is a practice humans naturally struggle with,” the tech site AllThingsD suggested, “maybe algorithms can do a better job.”
In other words, the premise of Shopycat is that it might understand the desires of your friends more accurately than you do. To the beleaguered social media participant, this sounds plausible. But is this something we really want?
Maybe we can’t avoid being reduced to data points by the info-crunching surveillance of big companies and other entities, but that doesn’t mean we should adopt their techniques to use on each other. I’m reminded of the old cliché that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail: The more Big (Small) Data tools emerge, the more we’ll be tempted to believe that every challenge of interpersonal relationships can be solved with algorithms.
But the cold efficiency of probabilistic calculation, useful as it may be to business, has no role among “friends”—let alone friends. If you really don’t know what gift to give to someone you genuinely care about, consider that a signal to set aside the techno-tools and make time for that most analog, inefficient and pleasurable of events: a conversation.
Rob Walker is a contributing writer to “The New York Times Magazine,” “Design Observer” and “Marketplace,” and is the author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” and “Letters From New Orleans.”