Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Counterintuitive thinking about the social web

Some recent work by Nancy Baym at the University of Kansas at Lawrence finds that common wisdom about people on the social web may be wrong.  She finds that many people benefit from their on-line interaction in ways that help them in the real world.  It is the exact opposite of socially isolating.

Her research compared groups of university students who were interacting either in person or in a chat room.  Students who were either shy or anxious were a lot more likely to contribute and even to lead the group online than in person.  And the other students developed better opinions of the shy and anxious ones.  She also concludes that this online interaction could be practice for live interactions and therefore be helpful for the shy and anxious students when they are in real social situations.  Rather than making them more introverted, it gave them social skill practice they could use in other situations.  In a more general survey, she also found that time spent by students on Facebook was correlated with levels of empathy both online and off. 

Is this what you would have guessed?  My own research on the social web would have made me hesitant to jump to conclusions, but I am not sure I would have realized how helpful it was for shy students when they later get into live social situations to have practiced online.

Wine Terroir

My recent post on the effects of batch versus mass production on average quality got me thinking about a related topic.  And again, I will have a non-standard example to illustrate (remember I used airplane food for that one). 

This time, the idea is customization v standardization and the topic is wine.  In France, they have a concept called “terroir” that has been around for centuries.  It is the belief that the specific soil, weather, climate, bacteria, worms, water, and possibly some unknown factors make wine from each vineyard fundamentally and permanently different from any other.  As climate and soil changes, the taste will change.  But each vineyard will always produce a product that is irreproducible at another vineyard.  This is why they protect region names like Bordeaux and Champagne as national trademarks so vigorously.   There are now some California wineries that are claiming their own “terroir,” claiming that their specific soil, etc makes their wine unique.  There was even some discussion that grapes grown on a hill will produce a unique wine because the angle of the sunlight is different.

This is in stark contrast to wine makers such as Gallo that intentionally create a standardized product.  A bottle of Gallo white zinfandel purchased anywhere in the world will taste the same, no matter where the grapes were grown.  They do this by blending different grapes together.  They also do this by tasting the raw product and adding different flavors to bring it to the standard.

You can make the same argument with hamburgers.  No matter where you are in the world, the recipe for the McDonalds hamburger is exactly the same, made with strictly specified ingredients, and will taste exactly the same.  Some countries get customized toppings or some additional items on the menu, but the burger is the burger.  On the other hand, some places advertise the special beef that they use.  Grass fed, angus beef from western Kansas.  Different breeds of cattle, different blends of grass, different climate in which the cattle grew up, all contribute to unique flavors.

Of course the final answer is that is good we have both to satisfy three kinds of customers.
1.   The fearful customer that likes the confidence that the burger and zinfandel will taste just like they expect who goes to McDonalds and drinks Gallo.
2.  The exploring customer that likes to have a different taste every time they get a burger and a zinfandel, who goes to single unit restaurants and small wineries.
3.  The picky customer that finds a local hamburger and zinfandel that he likes and prefers to get this same flavor every time, who finds a local burger and particular wine and always gets the same. 

Another consequence of this is how important research is. What are the components that give a hamburger its flavor or a wine its terrior?  Does the angle of the sunlight really make a difference?  The worms in the soil?  Great application for Design of Experiments.  I volunteer to taste the wines.