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The Importance of Numbers

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Following my initial post in which I questioned our need to justify what we do or think by quantifying who is paying attention, I ran across a New York Times article that essentially posits a similar thought — all of the constant data feedback available to us causes us to obsess over how connected we are to the rest of society and what that says about ourselves. It can initiate a competition to find more followers or friend more people. Before social media became as prevalent as it is now, we still used numbers to enhance our status; as the Times article notes, college rankings and standardized tests were the precursors. It can make us forget what things mean to each of us alone, without the complications of others’ judgments. I always have liked words better than numbers…

A few months back, The Times started a feature on its Web site called NYTimes Recommendations. It quantifies what you are reading in which sections and uses the past 30 days worth of reading to determine what other articles you might like on the site. It’s enlightening to compare the numbers to what my sense of what I find interesting on the site is and to see what topics I gravitate toward. I apparently read articles mostly in Opinions, Styles, and N.Y. Region. And my most read topics include restaurants, books and literature and theater. None of that is too surprising.

The Nieman Journalism Lab blog interviewed the Times’ CTO for digital operations and offered more insight into this feature. But it says:

<<On the web, it can be hard to find the things you like — not to mention the things you don’t know you’d like until you like them. The new Recommendation engine, Frons says, “allows us to expose content to our readers that they wouldn’t see any other way.”>>

I disagree. What this really seems to do is reinforce our consumption of what we already like. The recommendations I get fall mostly under the categories I already read. How likely then am I to come across something I didn’t already know that I liked? To me, what that quote describes is more fitting of the reading experience you get when you flip through a newspaper. Yes, you could restrict yourself to sections you know you already like. But even within those sections, you’re more likely to come across an article and perhaps be intrigued by a photograph or a headline about something you wouldn’t typically read than you are when reading online, where you have a more self-restricted environment.

I’d rather see the recommendations engine try to direct me to an article in Sports because it has a New York angle than have it show me articles from the sections I’m already reading. But it’s true that the Web has made news consumption so overwhelming that I barely even get to all the things I know I’d like to read about. So, maybe in the end we need numbers — some formula for proportioning those recommendations into things we like but probably missed and things that we might not otherwise even think about reading.

Written by Kim

April 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Posted in essay, new york times, news

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