Monday, September 13, 2010

The Snowflake Complex: behavioral modeling and you

“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

 Fight Club, 1999

Whenever a highly improbable event occurs, I’m immediately inclined to find that one missing detail that may explain it as part of a pattern; maybe a rare permutation of indicators and events but a pattern still. It’s not due to a firm belief in determinism, but rather a fascination with the observation that human experience is diverse while at the same time we all go through the same (culture- and geography-dictated) crossroads in life; these crossroads also provide us with the common grounds on which communities are formed. Examples to such patterns are manifold but let’s just call out two: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is the canonical textbook of myths, while Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a recent, nicely written example.

Recently I had this conversation all over again while describing my new project to a few folks. Every time I talk about modeling human behavior, I get asked how I can generalize on human beings – we’re such unique creatures, and the spectrum of our reactions is immensely broad. True and untrue; while we’re all unique individuals (well, you are. I’m not), we’re limited by two degrees of constraints that make it easier to understand who we are and why we do what we do.

One is our immediate and general social environment forcing us into behavioral patterns – forget the fact that people end up succumbing to the way they were brought up, let’s talk about the present – the only difficulty here is deciding on the right frame to compare to when trying to make a prediction. Sure, you’re very smart, and you dropped out of college to join a startup. Quite a unique move in your small town, maybe, but can’t say you’d stand out in a crowd in San Francisco. Being part of a startup that was successfully sold, then relocating to the US is something that happens to – I’d say – 1 in every 10,000 people in specific areas; put otherwise, there are thousands of people with a similar experience running around.

The other constraint is much more mundane – when you try to model behavior on the web, people are just limited by the interface. Trying to create complex interaction models or make arbitrary decisions usually fails because there’s no button for that (if you ever played Sierra quests, you know what “I can’t do that” means). Even when examining seemingly more complex MMOs like World of Warcraft, you see how simple the actual interaction model is.

We want to be a unique snowflake. I hope we are. But those who want to track and understand human behavior shouldn’t let the snowflake complex hinder their efforts. Ask the guys at Hunch.

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