Love Affair With Big Data

This year at SXSWi (South by Southwest Interactive), a tech festival that brings together marketers, entrepreneurs, startups, designers, and programmers, Big Data was everywhere. Panelists discussed harnessing data; Nate Silver presented on his methods for gathering Big Data and making predictions accordingly; startups are producing apps to help companies organize and act on Big Data.

Everybody’s hot for numbers. I get that.

We need information, data, to support our processes, to guide us into making intelligent decisions for our organizations. But the artist, the Humanities nerd, the right-side-of-the-brainer, as well as the realist in me cringes at the trendiness of and seemingly blind allegiance to Big Data.

Witchboard PosterThis week the New York Times published an article about film studios applying Big Data to screenplays. A statistician created an equation to determine what plot elements will fail at the box office and which ones will succeed. For example, if you summon a demon with a Ouija board, it’s not as likely to do as well as if you are the target of a demon’s wrath. Huh.

Film studios rely on this data to choose which screenplays to buy and which ones to discard. While using data to determine how studios spend their money seems like a safe bet, I can’t help but feel like there is going to be an incredible loss of creativity, absence of risk, and pop-cultural stagnation.

And I think there’s something missing here.

Interestingly enough, television is moving away from the deeply-flawed Nielsen ratings in exchange for aggregating insane amounts of data to understand their successes. However, TV networks are also more willing to take risks right now, relying on social media-based crowd-sourced marketing to do its thing.

Shows with cult followings, such as Arrested Development, were canceled due to poor Nielsen ratings. Netflix, as opposed to a traditional television network, is capitalizing on the cult following and by reviving the show after a several-year hiatus, it will probably make a killing. Television is no longer just on a television. Shows have generated enormous audiences of viewers who do not engage with television in the way that they used to.

I’m a great example of this. I am 33-years-old, and I haven’t had cable or network television ever in my adult life. Yet I spend at least twenty minutes a day watching TV shows through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, or the networks’ own apps on my iPhone or laptop.

In fact, the only television show I’ve watched when it aired in the past few years was this year’s Oscars, and Seth McFarlane’s performance was worse than most of the comedy open-mic nights I’ve been to, so I doubt I’ll waste my time with that again.

Rocky Horror Picture Show PosterSo what’s missing from the way the film studios use Big Data? Everything that comes after the box office. The truth that innovation can result in passionate fans, even if the movie doesn’t best GI Joe Two (cringe) at the box office. Having a cult hit is the gift that keeps on giving.

Creating interesting and unique content is a risk, but as all business people and artists know, creativity and risk are what change the world. Think different, right Steve Jobs?

What does all this have to do with Internet Marketing, my department here at Commerce Kitchen? Well, Big Data is useless if you’re not looking at what comes next. I’m lucky to have more number-driven people on my team here, but I don’t think numbers can or should dictate how we engender passionate communities.

Let’s understand what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past, and let’s allow that to inform our decisions. But let’s not stifle our creativity based on an equation of what normally works. There have been plenty of demons summoned in successful films in the past, and there will be again in the future. And in fact, Paranormal Activity, today’s demon franchise of choice, was a surprise hit.

Likewise, when I do keyword research I don’t just look at the highest volume search terms; instead, I look at which search terms convert well, which ones are the most relevant, which ones make sense within the context and within the ethical SEO strategies we’re committed to, and what the intent of the searcher is.

In other words, I look beyond the numbers and into the habitus, the thought processes, and the emotions of the actual people behind the numbers. This is where my experience in the Humanities comes in handy. Big Data helps us quantify an existing ethos, but it doesn’t necessarily help us predict the next one. In being adventurous and taking risks, creative content, whether it’s film, television, literature, or even marketing, not only responds to the cultural milieu, but it helps create it, too.

After I began writing this post, an article was published last week that explains why Big Data isn’t really big data at all; it’s simply what we’ve begun to call data analysis. The article makes some excellent points about the dangers of falling for Big Data without understanding its limitations:

Biases in how data are collected, a lack of context, gaps in what’s gathered, artifacts of how data are processed and the overall cognitive biases that lead even the best researchers to see patterns where there are none mean that “we may be getting drawn into particular kinds of algorithmic illusions,” said MIT Media Lab visiting scholar Kate Crawford. In other words, even if you have big data, it’s not something that Joe in the IT department can tackle—it may require someone with a PhD, or the equivalent amount of experience. And when they’re done, their answer to your problem might be that you don’t need “big data” at all.

We shouldn’t abandon data and data analysis, but we should be more realistic about its possibilities and pitfalls. I’d like to see our love affair with Big Data evolve into something else: an orgy that includes numbers, calculations, emotions, creativity, spontaneity, and risk.

About New Why

Web development, online advertising, and social media management for nonprofits and companies who want to make the world a better place.


New Why

Denver, CO

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