A Qualitative World

When I think about quantitative analytics, I think of The Matrix. In The Matrix, the world most people experience is purely a computer construct, one of ones and zeros spelling out a universe in binary. Keanu Reeves’ Neo is offered the choice between the red pill and the blue pill, the choice of living in an all digital reality where everything can be analyzed and shaped or an analog world where things can vary. In that first movie, everything is changed by his awakening, perhaps even the universe itself.

In quantitative analysis, it’s all about the numbers. Sampling size is key, but after a population reaches a certain size, there’s little chance of having the result change, so why bother asking, right? The first time an alarm was raised for me was as an undergrad sitting in a media class learning about the Neilsen ratings system. While there were more than 300 million people in the United States, they sampled a few hundred. Those few hundred told networks how much money they could make and what programming to pursue. Why? Because to sample any more than that would be a waste.

Skip to the mid-2000s. Neilsen switches to people meters from diaries and suddenly shows and networks watched by city dwellers and minorities suddenly drops overnight. The diary system had TV viewers write what they watched in increments over an hour. They were supposed to note if they changed the channel, when and if they stayed with the new program. People meters automated that data collecting. They were initially introduced in New York City and from the first day, programming featuring minorities plummeted in the ratings. It was serious enough that lawmakers took notice.

How could that happen? New York City has eight million people. They were replacing 400 diaries. Did they give people meters to the same people who had diaries? Where the people being replaced competent? How did they choose new families? As a purely “opt in” system, did they enroll people via letter or telephone call? If it was telephone, was it landline or mobile? To whittle 300 million people to a few hundred, you have to cut a lot of corners and make many broad generalizations.

Today advertisers and networks are learning much more about how people relate to television. They know we engage separate media simultaneously. We post on Facebook and Twitter while we watch. That alone has moved networks out of a purely quantitative understanding of their programming. Now you can see the next day how your program reached its audience by a simple hashtag search. This is a good thing. I do agree that individual focus groups in many different areas is an expensive proposition, perhaps prohibitively expensive even. But these new technologies help us understand much more.

Other technologies are coming. Would a modern teenager download an app for their Google Glass that measured how long they looked at the outfits worn my actors on the latest MTV program? Would you do the same for shows you watch? What if you were paid an Amazon gift card for your efforts? The improved data would be incredibly valuable. The payoff to you would be tiny depending on how much data you were willing to share.

I think we are on the cusp of things changing. Facebook has been losing young people lately. I could see them revitalized if they shared their ad revenue with the people whose friends they are ad bombing. If you were 16 with hundreds of friends, would you take $50 a month for giving Facebook extra access to your followers? I think the first company to offer this will not only gain access to a treasure trove of marketing data, but create a new, fairer, more qualitative world for advertising.

The New AOL

I remember my first internet experience. I was just starting at Southern Miss and my new roommate, Keith, had a computer. He offered to put it in the living room so everyone in the house could use it for work. My brother and I happened to have an AOL disk, so we installed it and went online.

The first thing we did was go into a chatroom. Maybe now it seems silly, but the second thing we did online was get a Prodigy disk, install it, go online and into a beginner’s chatroom and ask, “What does “lol” mean?” With the answer in hand, we went back to AOL and went on to down hundreds of dollars over the next several months. As my brother and another roommate spent a lot of time looking at porn, eventually Keith moved the computer into his bedroom.

By then it wasn’t hard to get the money from my parents to buy my own PC.

Just thinking about those heady days makes me misty-eyed. Now we all know AOL was a walled garden, but in the beginning, we had no idea. We thought that’s what the internet was. Eventually we found out that if you used Internet Explorer or Netscape outside of AOL, when your connection broke (as regularly happened), you wouldn’t lose your webpage.

What was it that made AOL so successful in those early days? Was it the community? Not for me. I have one friend from online who I still talk to from those days. Was it the games? No, I hated Slingo from the first game of it I played.

I think it was just ignorance that kept everyone paying for so long. My first attempt to use another ISP was the first time I ever heard the term Winsock. It drove me back to AOL where I waited until Netdoor came along. Even after that, when someone asked how the internet worked, it was pretty easy to grab one of the thousands of discs AOL was distributing and send them on their way.

Everything ends, though.

Of course in my mind our modern equivalent of AOL is Facebook. It has chat, it has games, it has instant messaging. All the banality of AOL without the hourly (then monthly) access fee.

There are some differences, though. AOL supplied you with news and information. With Facebook, your friends supply you with news and information. While AOL used the Associated Press, your friends might not be the greatest or most reliable sources of news.

Farmville is as ubiquitous as it is terrible. I know one person who plays it, but at least she is aware it’s just a time filler. It really is a Slingo for the modern age. And just like Slingo, it’s aging housewives who keep it going. Worse than AOL, though, are the forced updates you get via Facebook about people’s progress…that is until you learn how to hide them.

Facebook has groups just like classic AOL did. It helps you keep up with your friends, family and coworkers, just like AOL did. It also has the ability to completely soak up hours of your time just like AOL did.

The biggest thing it did just like AOL, though, is it wore out its welcome. Where a year ago, I was a regular user, now I hardly log in. The thing is, again, just like AOL, when your great aunt Lillian has a Facebook account, just how cool can it really be? Let’s not forget that Aunt Lillian just got online with her new DSL, so you will be educating her about the ‘net one painful message at a time.

It will be interesting to see if Facebook can hold all its users or if they eventually all migrate away. People are pretty fickle. Already Myspace is down for the count having been completely steamrolled by Facebook. What about Brightkite and Virb? Will they turn Facebook into the new new AOL?

Only time and user interest will tell.