Data Death Spiral: Too much categorization stymies decision-making

2014-02-choice-curve-200Perhaps some readers are aware of Sheena Iyengar’s (classic) jam choice study from 1995, in which a grocery market try-before-you-buy display was set up with 24 sample jars of jam, alternated every few hours with a much smaller display of 6 jars. As described in the NY Times, considerably more customers were drawn to the larger display; however, the ratio of buyers was only 1/10 the size of the ratio who bought from the limited 6-jar display. Professor Iyengar hypothesized that “the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Certainly, given that the availability of choices does have some value, data categorization is important. But when I ran across Seth Redmore’s recent post about his musical background and the size and scope of musical genres on the market today, I could not believe what he had discovered: a laughably over-zealous list of electronic music categories. Thousands of them.

I am by no means a music industry expert, but it seems clear that when a musician/composer arbitrarily invents a unique name for his personal “brand” of music, such action does not mean a new genre has officially come into being. After all, we are talking about classification of “unstructured” content here (i.e., music), not a scientific taxonomy. As a practical matter in the real world where decisions are made, the differentiation of these so-called genres and sub-genres exists only in the minds of the (likely self-absorbed) composers who coined their names.

From a data collection standpoint, the more categories assigned, the greater the chance of miscategorization, misinterpretation, and confusion. This would only hinder the “shared understanding” Mr. Redmore says can be achieved with data categorization, even if music providers claim such categorization is intended to help consumers find exactly what they want.

My counter-intuitive point here (and maybe Redmore’s, too) is that the consumer cannot possibly know what he wants when faced with so many non-standardized music choices with ridiculously similar genre names like ritual ambient v. black ambient v. doom ambient v. drone ambient v. deep ambient v. death ambient. Mr. Redmore even mentions Netflix with its nearly 77K movie categories! From a marketing standpoint, that is crazy–There is simply no practical reason to attempt the creation of big data where such breadth is detrimental to decision-making. And this would be true whether in the online music room or in the executive board room.

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Posted on March 3, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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