Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

Africa 101: Togolese radio, stereotypes and Africa in small doses

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“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

-Countee Cullen – “Heritage

Like many “westerners” (or whatever you want to call us – which is a group of mixed, all-over-the-place folks), I never used to give much thought to the specifics of the African continent. It was some “other place” I had not seen, dreamt of or had feelings about one way or the other. It was not really included in any appreciable way in my education, and I did not know anyone from Africa or who had been to Africa. Thus, it was a nebulous concept – just “Africa” without subtlety and nuance. It was not unlike the application of this blanket term “westerners”. What does it even mean?

Of course when I got older, it dawned on me that Africa is a vast place and the diversity was something I could not even begin to fathom. If each state of the American union, sharing a common language and currency, can each be as different as they tend to be, then the countries and regions of Africa would have to dwarf American diversity in some ways (although of course America is a land of immigration, making it a strange concoction as well. In fact most western countries, through years and years of immigration activity, have become their own strange concoctions).

Still, despite the few little tidbits of specific information I gathered haphazardly – nothing systematic about it – Africa was still just a jumble of faces in magazines or on tv, stereotypes, unusual names, places with ever-changing borders, names and leaders but nothing cohesive.

I could swear I had written about this “incremental introduction to Africa” in a previous blog entry before but cannot find any evidence of it now. All I can find is someplace that I wrote: “It seems that it does not matter how much one protests that Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is not just one monolithic entity. Most will continue to treat this massive and diverse continent as though one remedy, one answer, one strategy works for the entire place.” Not that I was ever that different before really giving it some thought and consideration and a lot of time learning.

Where did all the questioning start? I cannot pinpoint an exact moment. In elementary school, when I was a child, I had absolutely no exposure to Africa or anything of direct African origin, other than some carved wooden turtle knick-knacks my grandmother gave me. They were “made in Kenya”, which she informed me was a country in Africa. It sounded so far off and exotic – very hard to comprehend. Later, in elementary school, our social studies textbook mentioned “Mba, Aubame and Bongo” – the only thing I learned about Africa in my entire public school education. The fact that I remembered only their names and a picture but nothing about where they came from shows only how disconnected this piece of information was from anything else. It was as though the textbook creators wanted to mention Africa but did not really have anything to say about it. (Later, of course, with these disconnected names floating around in my head, I checked into it to discover that these men were figures in la politique gabonaise.)

Later, as late as university, I felt a real elevation in my consciousness about this idea of “Africa” as a monolithic entity. A musician from Ghana, Obo Addy (RIP, 2012), came to my university and lectured about this topic – and it was, even though obvious, as though a light came on. The light of ignorance versus stupidity. Haha. No, I wasn’t stupid – I just didn’t know and, like most people, had no reason to think about these things. How did Ghana differ, I started thinking, from Nigeria, or from Gabon? How, even, did North Africa differ from sub-Saharan Africa? As ridiculously surface-level and limited as this sounds now, for 17-year-old me, it was all new. Meanwhile many of my classmates had spent parts of their lives in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire (I want an Ivorian passport – it has an elephant on the front!) and thus had this air of experience and of being cosmopolitan. They had such a different worldview – or seemed like it – and I had no reason or circumstance to know more than I had before this point in time. I suppose this is partly what filled me with an awkwardness and feeling of inadequacy – that my life then was so sheltered and limited in scope. Even my aspirations, reflecting on it, were so puny and plodding. In a comparative light, my experience, despite being mine, just felt like nothingness. My closest encounters with Abidjan were little French-language profiles in my high school French-language text when we were optimistically introduced to all kinds of characters in le monde francophone. (Naturally I also enjoyed our little vignettes of the Swiss, Canadian, Tahitian and Martinique francophones!) To this day, it is hard to imagine spending part of childhood in some part of Africa (again, high school viewing of the Claire Denis film Chocolat should fill that gap in some one-dimensional, take-a-quick bite kind of way).

But then, all my knowledge about “African things” comes from “take-a-quick bite”, almost accidental approaches. From the strange trend in my life of meeting a string of strange men from Gambia (either in the Turkish fruit-and-veg store I frequented in Oslo to being seated next to a Gambian on an Icelandair flight) to the unusual way that Congo (formerly Zaire) keeps popping up in my life (watching When We Were Kings, reading a book about Congo that I found in Trondheim, Norway, seeing a film about Patrice Lumumba and thinking that maybe – just maybe – there was a mention of Lumumba in a schoolbook in my childhood, but that might just be wishful thinking. It’s hard to resist a story with names like Lumumba, Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu Sese Seko), it is as though I am meant to absorb Africa in small doses.

There was the strange flood of postal letters in both English and French that I received from misguided but hopeful suitors from Togo that put Togo on the map (quite literally) for me. Years ago when I was very active in the postal pen pal community, I used to exchange “friendship books” – small, decorated little booklets one might make for herself or a friend that included some info on interests and the postal address. You would send this to a pen pal, who would include his/her information and forward it to another of their pen pals and so on, until theoretically, this little booklet would be full of decorated pages and addresses of new potential friends. Occasionally these booklets would make their way, somehow, to African destinations. Normally this resulted only in a few unwanted letters (many people actually made a point of specifying on their friendship book pages: “No Africans!” – it still strikes me as kind of a horrible generalization but I imagine people had their reasons). In many cases – and very likely for a good many others – it resulted in a few weeks of receiving 50+ letters, daily, from men in Togo who were, according to their letters, “very excited for our marital relations to begin”.

I had no idea who these men were – where were they getting my address? Eventually one of the letters explained that they had heard an ad on the radio – someone was selling the addresses of women in the once-again-undefinable “west” seeking African husbands. All these guys had paid some undetermined amount of money to get their hands on addresses of women who had no interest whatsoever in an African husband. I imagine some enterprising, entrepreneurial type got his hands on one of these friendship books and used it to make a bit of cash. (Advertising on the radio seems a bit weird, but then I don’t have a clue if the radio in Togo is a normal means of advertising.) After seeing probably 400 or more letters come to my postbox, I really could not take it anymore. I just started throwing them away without opening them. Receiving the letters suddenly felt at once creepy and sad.

But I had my little slice of Togo and took in information I would not otherwise have had.

I met a French guy who had African parents (from Ghana and Benin); I knew quite a bit about Ghana by that time, but Benin was a bit mysterious. I managed to learn that Benin is the only country in the world (or at least at that time) which counts voodoo among its state religions. Voodoo, widely associated with Haiti, is only so associated because of the slave trade. It actually came from places like Benin.

I worked with a guy who was part Tanzanian, part Norwegian, who remarked on the “personal space bubble” of northern Europe. If you were to get on a bus, for example, in Tanzania and sit alone, the next person who got on the bus would sit down next to you – somehow being alone or perceived as lonely or wanting personal space is not perceived as “normal”. Life is much more about being a part of a community.

Eventually getting into development studies, Africa is often at the core of this discipline. My studies have taken me (virtually) to Mali (warfare and the films of Malian-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako – such as Bamako, which was a film I watched several times for its multilayered commentary). My obsession with news and tendency to watch AlJazeera English (which focuses a lot of attention on Asia, Latin America and Africa – all under-reported on American news channels) has given me insight into Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali – among a million other things, including France’s continued influence in the African sphere, as evidenced by its eagerness to jump into military conflicts and/or peacekeeping (most recently in Mali and CAR).

But it is still a slow and incremental learning process, especially because I am only doing it on screen or paper. I still have not travelled to Africa. But because Africa, African geography, African issues are all so distant and perceived as so esoteric, if you happen to know one or two facts about a given African country, people – sometimes even people from that country – imagine you are an expert. Comparatively speaking, maybe I have become a pseudo-expert – but I am still a novice with so little expertise or experience. After having eaten Ethiopian food perhaps once and knowing that the spongy bread is called injera and is made from teff flour, an Ethiopian guy decided I must know everything about Ethiopia (he was just impressed perhaps that I was not one among the multitudes of insensitive assholes who always reply to comments about Ethiopian food with, “I didn’t know Ethiopians had food.”)

Most recently, I watched a film, Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust), which was about a man from Niger who travels to Burkina Faso to try his luck as a gold miner in horrific and dangerous conditions. Cinematographically beautiful, all these films, I am still a geography dunce. I find – still – I always have to look at a map.