Today’s social interactions: “data is our currency”

Want to interact with the culturally literate crowds of today? You need to be aware of lots of online data:

Whenever anyone, anywhere, mentions anything, we must pretend to know about it. Data has become our currency. (And in the case of Bitcoin, a classic example of something that we all talk about but nobody actually seems to understand, I mean that literally.)…

We have outsourced our opinions to this loop of data that will allow us to hold steady at a dinner party, though while you and I are ostensibly talking about “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” what we are actually doing, since neither of us has seen it, is comparing social media feeds. Does anyone anywhere ever admit that he or she is completely lost in the conversation? No. We nod and say, “I’ve heard the name,” or “It sounds very familiar,” which usually means we are totally unfamiliar with the subject at hand.

Knowing about all of the latest Internet memes, videos, and headlines may just be the cultural capital of our times. On one hand, cultural capital is important. This is strikingly seen in the influence of Pierre Bourdieu in recent decades after Bourdieu argued different social classes have different cultural tastes and expressions. Want to move up in the world? You need to be able to operate in the cultural spheres of the upper classes. On the other hand, the writer of this article suggests this cultural capital may not be worth having. This Internet data based cultural capital emphasizes a broad and populist knowledge rather than a deep consideration of life’s important issues. If we are all at the whim of the latest Internet craze, we are all chasing ultimately unsatisfying data.

But, I think you can take this another direction than the long debate about what is proper cultural literacy. I recently heard an academic suggest we should ask one question about all of this: how much do we get wrapped up in these online crazes and controversies versus engaging in important relationships? Put in terms of this article, having all the data currency in the world doesn’t help if you have no one to really spend that currency with.


Shared cultural interests leads to hiring at elite firms

A new sociological study argues having the right cultural interests or pursuing certain cultural activities can lead to getting a job at elite firms:

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds…

As a result, evaluators described their own and others’ firms as having distinct personalities related to employees’ extracurricular interests and social styles. Companies ranged from “sporty” and “scrappy” to “egghead” and “country club.” One outfit even specialized in hiring people with drab personalities.

Top-ranked firms uniformly favored applicants who cited upper–middle class leisure pursuits such as rock climbing, playing the cello or enjoying film noir.

Picking employees from the same cultural basket may have pluses and minuses, Rivera adds. Hiring people with common traits and interests may create a cohesive work force. But shunning prospective employees with different life histories could also make firms susceptible to reaching decisions quickly without evaluating alternative ideas.

This challenges the American ideal of meritocracy where hard work should lead to a job. While the study suggests these cultural interests don’t matter as much when organizations are hiring for more technical jobs, it does matter for white-collar and upper-class jobs. This could also challenge the role of college courses: how many college classes are about developing a “scrappy” or “country club” approach to life? In contrast, the experience outside the classroom at some colleges (plus the applicants’ earlier life history) might contribute quite a bit to learning about and then developing these cultural skills.

It would also be interesting to look more at the personalities involved in hiring and branding that companies develop. Marketing today often involves selling a brand and image more so than focusing on the particulars of a product. Is this branding simply about marketing or does it bleed through the culture of the entire organization?

An argument for Amazon’s one-star reviews reveals the role of cultural critics

A professional critic praises Amazon’s one-star reviews:

About a year ago, while shopping online for holiday gifts, I became an unabashed connoisseur of the one-star amateur Amazon review. Here I found the barbed, unvarnished, angry and uncomfortably personal hatchet job very much alive. Indeed, I became so enamored of Amazon’s user-generated reviews of books, films and music that my interest expanded to the one-star notices on Goodreads, Yelp and Netflix, where, for instance, a “Moneyball” review notes the movie “did not make you feel warm and fuzzy at the end as a good sports film should.” How true! A rare opinion on a critical darling!…

But there is a visceral thrill to reading amateur reviewers on Amazon who, unlike professional critics, do not claim to be informed or even knowledgeable, who do not consider context or history or ambition, who do not claim any pretense at all. Their reviews, particularly of classics, often read as though these works had dropped out of space into their laps, and they were first to experience it. About “Moby-Dick,” one critic writes: “Essentially, they rip off the plot to ‘Jaws.'” About “Ulysses,” another critic writes: “I honestly cannot figure out the point, other than cleverness for cleverness’ sake.”

Likewise, to seriously dismiss “The Great Gatsby” as “‘Twilight’ without the vampires,” as an Amazon reviewer did, may be glib and reductive, but it’s also brilliantly spot on, the kind of comparison a more mannered critic might not dare. “Whoever made that ‘Twilight’ comparison, whether they know it, is showing their education, that they can connect new media with old works and draw fresh conclusions,” said David Raskin, chair of the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago…

Speaking of honesty: It should be pointed out here that, in general, online amateur reviews are not mean but usually as forgiving as the professional sort. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied online reviews — “partly because I was curious if they were real or just someone gaming the system” — told me that 60 percent of Amazon reviews are five-star reviews and another 20 percent are four-star. The information research firm Gartner released a study in September predicting that, within a couple of years, between 10 and 15 percent of online reviews will be paid for by companies — rigged.

It sounds like the argument is this: you can find the average American in the one-star Amazon reviews. Instead of getting the filtered, sophisticated review typically found in media sources, these reviewers give the unvarnished pop culture take. Discussed in this argument is the idea of social class and education. An approved reviewer or critic, the typical gatekeeper, is able to put a work in its context. The educated critic is trying to make the work understandable for others. The educated critic often has experience and education backing their opinions. In contrast, the Internet opens up spaces for individuals to post their own reactions and through aggregation, such as the Amazon five-star review system, have some say about how products and cultural works are perceived.

This new reality doesn’t render cultural gatekeepers completely irrelevant but it does do several things. One, it dilutes their influence or at least makes it possible for more critics to get involved. Second, it also makes more visible the opinions of average citizens. Instead of just theorizing about mass culture or pop culture, we can all see what the masses are thinking at the moment they are thinking it. (Think of the possibilities on Twitter!) Third, it provides space like in this article for reviewers to admit they don’t always want to write erudite pieces but want to have a “normal person reaction.”

Just one problem with this piece: the critic says he doesn’t really read the one-star Amazon reviews for information. Instead, he appreciates the “visceral thrill.” He quotes an academic who says such reviews reveal cultural gaps. Thus, celebrating the one-star reviews may be just another way to assert the traditional reviewer’s cultural capital. Read the one-star reviews for entertainment but continue to go back to the educated reviewer for the context and more valued perspective.

A new way to do the college search process: one comprehensive website to match students to colleges

The policy director of an education think tank writes in Washington Monthly, itself a purveyor of college rankings, that the future of college admissions will come in the form of a single, comprehensive website that will match prospective students and colleges:

This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.

This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids. Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom. Among all students who enroll in college, most will either transfer or drop out. For African American students and those whose parents never went to college, the transfer/dropout rate is closer to two-thirds. Most students don’t live in the resource-rich, intensely college-focused environment that upper-middle-class students take for granted. So they often default to whatever college is cheapest and closest to home. Tools like ConnectEDU will give them a way to find something better.

We can think of getting into college like this: students need to be slotted into the appropriate school. At this point, students can do certain things to improve their fit and colleges use certain information (though it often comes in a form of a narrative about students that admissions officers construct – I highly recommend Creating a Class). Our current system is highly dependent on students doing the initial legwork in searching out colleges that might fit them but as this article suggests, there are a number of students, particularly poorer students, who don’t do well in this system.

If this website idea catches on, wouldn’t it create more competition within the college market for students? If so, would middle- and upper-class students start complaining?

Also, while the article suggests a website like this is the answer to helping kids who can’t currently play the college game, doesn’t it rest on the idea that (1) people have equal access to this website and (2) that users have the ability or “cultural capital” to sort through the information the website presents? Neither of these might necessarily be true.

h/t Instapundit