How does the web shape our taste — and our choices? This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Tom Vanderbilt, author of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. They examine how online ratings affect our perceptions, the power of negative reviews, and Tom and Rich’s shared appreciation (/love) for Rush. They also discuss Tom’s previous book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), and how his research led him deep into the world of cycling.
Paul Ford: Rich, it’s good to see you today.
Rich Ziade: It’s great to see you, Paul.
Paul: I’m Paul Ford.
Rich: Rich Ziade.
Paul: We’re the co-founders of a company called Postlight that is a product studio in New York City, and this [voice rising alarmingly] is our podcast people are telling me to be more excited it’s TRACK CHANGES!
Rich: Cynical. There’s cynicism throughout.
Paul: Everybody, it’s all for the five-star review. So Rich, speaking of five-star reviews… [laughter] I just jammed that in there.
Rich: Good move, good move.
Paul: We have a very special guest today…
Rich: Tom Vandebilt.
Paul: Tom Vanderbilt. Rich, Tom is the author of a book called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.
Paul: And to drive that home, they actually…they sent a copy of the book in two colors. It’s in two colors. It’s in this sort of, like…
Rich: Two copies, you mean.
Paul: Two copies.
Rich: Each in different colors.
Paul: Yeah, in different covers.
Rich: I thought that was clever, by the way.
Paul: So you can choose which ones.
Tom Vanderbilt: It’s wasteful, but… [laughter] To send two, I mean, but…
Paul: So that right there, that is the voice of Tom Vanderbilt. Tom, welcome.
Tom: Hey, great to be here. Thank you.
Paul: Thank you. So how do you describe yourself out in the big wide world?
Tom: A writer. You know, magazines, books, blog posts, whatever text is being paid for at the moment.
Paul: And I remember first, one of the first thing I read by you, you have a book about traffic.
Tom: Yes. Called Traffic. [laughter]
Paul: Narrows it down.
Rich: Not the movie. Not related to the movie.
Tom: Nor the band.
Rich: Nor the band, thankfully.
Paul: And that came out a couple years ago, right?
Paul: So that, you were sort of, were and are like, a global traffic expert?
Tom: Yeah, I mean, people like to use that phrase. I am always a little bit weirded out by the phrase “expert” because I didn’t, I didn’t get a transportation engineering degree in college and did not spend 20 years of my life dedicating myself to channeling cars through cities, but I talked to a lot of experts. I lived in the world of experts for a few years, in Traffic.
Rich: Somebody must have tapped you to talk about driverless cars. It’s got to be, I mean, it’s gonna be a huge, huge impact on, just everything that has to do with traffic.
Tom: I did write a piece for Wired a few years ago. I was in the Google car with…not Sebastian Thrun, but his, the people that followed him there, and so yeah, in fact, I was in that car twice. I was in the Stanford car right over a few blocks away at Javits Center. This was going back to about 2000…2010, let’s say. They closed off 10th Avenue, and we did this sort of little drive. It was pretty cool, but it was a little bit sterile, right?
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Because it’s all closed course, no pedestrians. A few years later I was at Google, we were on a California public highway in the middle of the day, no one was touching the wheel.
Tom: I mean the bloom was slightly off that rose after some of the Tesla, you know, the Tesla incidents.
Paul: Oh right, because a Tesla fan died, was in a crash.
Tom: Yeah, and that’s not to compare what Google has exactly to Tesla, because, I mean, the irony is they were actually paying more attention to the driverless car than the average driver pays to their own driving —
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Because it was an experiment, but, you know, I felt, sitting in the back of that car, watching a lot of other people make really bad decisions and erratic behaviors, that I actually, strangely, began to feel safe after a while in that car.
Paul: So you feel safer in a robot-driven car?
Tom: Yes, but with close human supervision, and in control. My sense is that the media — because I was always asked to talk about this, is that the media was really, and other interested parties, are really trying to drive the narrative here, and that we are many, many years away from, you know, so.
Paul: Now you are, you are an avowed cyclist. We learned this a minute ago.
Rich: To the point where it affects his health detrimentally.
Tom: It’s like people with rescue dogs. I mean, one of the first things they’ll tell you is they have a rescue dog, and like, cyclists are like, one of the first things you’ll find out is I’m a cyclist.
Paul: We asked!
Paul: I looked at you, I was like, he does something. This, this is a man — the people can’t see Tom, but he’s very fit. Would you agree?
Rich: I agree. He seems, he seems like he’s in excellent shape.
Paul: This is very — well no, for a writer, I mean writers, it’s…writers either have it together or they’re like me and they’re just a freakin’ disaster. You’re in the have-it-together camp, but you’re telling us it goes a little too far.
Rich: It looks like you’d go and do 100 miles on a given day.
Tom: Yes. I mean, if I had the time.
Tom: Not every day, or you know. [laughter]
Rich: But beautiful day, day off, you’ll bang it out. What’s the longest you’ve ridden?
Tom: I know this because I’m a data geek and I have Strava, it’s 221 miles.
Tom: And that was with the guy trying to set the record for the most miles cycled in a year, which he did.
Paul: How many miles did he cycle?
Tom: 75,000, which is the equivalent of cycling 200 miles every day.
Paul: What…what’s his name?
Tom: Kurt Searvogel.
Rich: Of course it is.
Paul: Someone else will have to write that down. The…yeah, so you’re tracking, you’re tracking your bike rides?
Paul: So technology kind of is in your — what is actually, what’s your bike stack? What’s your technology that you use.
Tom: That’s pretty much just Strava and a smartphone and a Garman.
Rich: Strava kind of won, I feel like. Everybody I know who runs and cycles…
Paul: That’s the one?
Rich: Uses Strava…
Tom: Yeah, I mean, Garman tries to have their own thing, and there’s MapMyRide, but it’s the social thing, I think.
Rich: Right. Yeah. They post their runs. It’s pretty exhausting, actually. I’ll have a bad day and just eat Cheetos and then, you know, I’ll get a ping on my phone that my friend just ran 14 miles.
Paul: Oh, it’s got a social network built in.
Rich: You can just tell the world, or tell Facebook, hey, and it shows your path on the map…
Paul: And you’re just sitting there eating Cheetos…
Rich: Eating Cheetos watching Godfather III.
Paul: And someone looped Central Park, like, eight times.
Rich: There’s an aspect to that, which is, it actually is kind of fun, because it tracks it all, and it sees your progress…it’s a whole thing.
Tom: It definitely sort of dominates your world to the extent that there’s a joke, if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen, your ride, like if you do a ride and your GPS doesn’t work for some reason, you feel really crushed, because…
Rich: Yeah. They kind of solved — they nailed it, as far as that goes.
Tom: And in the winter, just in terms of technology, I’ve become a kind of devotee of Zwift.
Paul: It sounds like it’s spelled with a Z.
Tom: It is.
Paul: Oh, OK.
Tom: It’s kind of the equivalent of a…a massively multi-player online game for cycling. It creates online courses that you ride and you can actually record them on Strava, and you’re riding against other virtual riders who are named and it’s usually people in Canada or England, wherever there are cold climates.
Rich: You’re not outside?
Tom: No, you’re on a smart trainer inside. Your —
Tom: Normal bike is hooked up to that, and you’re…
Rich: This is a thing now.
Paul: So you’re living an augmented bicycle reality lifestyle.
Tom: Yeah — I was all ready to just reflexively denounce…not denounce, but just sort of make fun of Pokémon GO, people moving through the world collecting these random prizes. Then I realized that was myself…
Paul: You looked in the mirror….
Tom: On Strava. [laughter]
Tom: Getting these king of the mountain awards and things like that, so…
Paul: I mean it’s fun, right? Like, it adds…the winter sucks, and you can’t really ride, and then, this adds something to it.
Tom: Yeah, I mean they have — I’m sure they must be dealing with Oculus Rift, to take it that, but it already feels pretty immersive to me, for just being on a, on a single screen, but to then take it to that next level.
Rich: God, that’s really cool.
Paul: So you spend a lot of your life dealing with cars moving around, but you’re a very, very serious cyclist.
Tom: Yeah, which actually came out of, I think, doing a lot of the traffic research. I sort of fell in with some advocates and things and you know —
Paul: Oh, interesting, so —
Tom: And I also hit my forties and I needed something to do…
Paul: So you weren’t doing 100 —
Tom: Stave off decline. [laughter]
Rich: You know, I’m just going to bring up this question for this new book. I’m not a writer, and you know, the leap to decide, I’m gonna write about this topic is a big one for a writer that dives as deeply as you do. What compelled you to dive into, I wanna ask about this book, but also first, Traffic, like what, what sort of, you woke up and said, I gotta, I gotta put this all together?
Tom: I mean, Traffic was a bit more organic, in that there literally was a moment, I was driving with my wife, we kind of passed the same spot a few days, and there was a construction zone merge situation, and it was just a lot of behavior, bad and good, and I was just sort of struck, so I started to wonder, could there be a better way to design this system that would take some of the personal hostility out of it.
So I went online and it was as if, you know, I had fallen down the rabbit hole. There was just this entire world of research, people doing this research that, you know, again, this one intersection study, 50-page report, that I actually found kind of compelling, because it was a behavior I had been doing all my life, and not knowing that there was this almost, like, code running underneath it that was —
Paul: Just this whole secret world just opens up.
Tom: Yeah, the red…was it the red pill or the blue pill?
Paul: I mean…
Tom: I can’t remember. [laughter] Something had been revealed to me, not that people always do what traffic engineers want them to do. Just, so, I love things like that, that are the things almost hidden in plain sight.
Rich: So tons of research has been done.
Paul: Well it’s a whole discipline.
Rich: It’s a whole discipline, but nobody’s sort of surfaced it and made it available.
Tom: And yet it’s one of those things that the minute you start talking about it with anyone, it’s the ultimate kind of elevator topic.
Rich: Oh, exactly.
Tom: Weather and traffic, or just how people drive.
Tom: So no problem starting a conversation, which is always…
Tom: For a writer, it’s kind of gold, when you sense that moment that…
Tom: You know…Pierre Bourdieu, in my new book, it’s not necessarily a thing that… [laughter] people wanna, the bar down the street will wanna start launching into, talking about sociology in 1960s France, but I wanted to give it the same go, and it was another thing that was right in front of me all the time in everyday life, especially as we move more online. Just seeing, not only trying to express my own choices and make choices, but seeing increasing amount of opinion from other people about their choices.
Tom: And suddenly feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole process.
Paul: So how — now, one of the things I noticed about You May Also Like is that you pick it up, it’s a big book, it’s got a lot going on, but it is probably the most heavily-researched book I’ve seen in a while. It goes to footnotes and it doesn’t stop towards the end there. First of all, how did you come to this subject. The subject, essentially, taste, right, I mean that’s the subject of the book.
Tom: Yeah, just a note on the footnotes, I kind of call it the reverse mullet, where sort of the business in back and the party up front, although I don’t know if you’d call the text actually a party, but, and I feel like a lot of books should probably have more footnotes if people really went to the trouble to explain all their research.
Tom: But I think people cut corners but…
Paul: There are no corners cut here. [laughter]
Tom: And some people, some people almost complain about the presence of them, I’ve noticed, on the reviews on Amazon for both this book and Traffic, and —
Rich: What? Complain about the footnotes?
Paul: People…people complain about…this is literally the most meta subject possible, right, because people just…
Paul: Have strong opinions on footnotes.
Tom: Well this is the — this is, all right, we’ll just launch right into a discussion on Amazon right now, which is that, I mean, putting something out in the world really exposes you to the proclivities of peoples’ taste, not even about the content of the book, but the book you’re holding has what’s called a deckle edge.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: You notice that sort of slightly…variegated…
Paul: Yeah, the paper’s sort of ridged.
Tom: This is kind of an artisanal effect, let’s say, that Knopf likes to do.
Paul: It does indicate “serious book.”
Tom: Yeah, it has sort of a….
Paul: And I don’t mean serious like in subject matter, but like, this book’s gonna be kind of a big deal if it’s got a deckle edge.
Tom: Yeah, and yet, some reviews on Amazon, people were literally saying, this must have been some kind of printing error, not all the end pages line up, so I’m going to give this one star. [laughter]
Tom: And this raises one of the immediate questions for an author about being on Amazon as, you know, kind of having to go through your one- and two-star reviews and figure out exactly what wrong.
Rich: There’s crazy people in these, in some of the reviews.
Paul: Yeah but the subject of this book is literally about how people form opinions and the kind of tastes that emerge.
Paul: So it’s like, if you write a book about taste and you go this deep into the sociology of it, as you do, you kind of have to accept that they don’t like it just because it has deckle edges.
Tom: Right, and the immediate, you know, thing that any author, and really any consumer should probably do is just avoid the polarities. Avoid the one- and five-star reviews, because the one stars, as you mention, is someone clearly has a strange axe to grind, and the five stars —
Rich: Yeah, they’re almost angry in tone.
Tom: Yeah. And just sputtering. And…
Tom: We can generalize and say that there are not very many well-written one-star reviews. People don’t go to that trouble to compose a, you know…five star can be the other problem. It’s your friend, it’s a plant, it’s…
Rich: I think you can get that out of, like, a fridge. Sometimes they literally live with the fridge for six months and have been noting the issues they’re having with it, and the one-star reviews, I feel like with physical products, it’s kind of a different — because they get angry, and they can’t return it, and they’re past warranty. The least I can do is get on Amazon.
Paul: It’s true, I had a friend who made —
Rich: Tell the world.
Paul: I had a friend who made videos of his fridge, he was so upset with it.
Rich: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. People —
Paul: Well he just literally —
Rich: People take videos of broken stuff, yeah.
Paul: It would just scream at night. He filmed it screaming. [laughter] It had this incredibly loud buzz, it’d be like, two in the morning. Tick, tick, tick, [HORRIBLE MALFUNCTIONING FRIDGE NOISE] it would just do that. Which is bad in a fridge.
Rich: But I think you’re right about books, the one stars…
Tom: But this raises a good point, I mean, about refrigerators, in that, you know, they’ve done analysis of what are called “experiential goods,” which are books, movies —
Tom: Verus search goods, and a refrigerator would be sort of a search good. If your refrigerator were making that noise in the middle of the night, I would want to know about that. If you really had an issue with that, and you were going to publish a 600-word rant, I would probably want to know why you’re ranting, because it really indicates something about the functionality of the refrigerator.
Tom: If someone’s going to go for a 600-word rant about a novel they’ve read, chances are whatever their issue is is not going to be “functional,” it’s going to be some kind of taste procl — you know, I couldn’t identify with the character. Like, well you couldn’t, but maybe I will.
Paul: You also can’t fix that on the production line. [laughter] You can’t be like, aw man, we’re gonna have to, like, get this writer to go back and fix this novel. Like, it’s done, it’s out.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Rich: Book, I mean, I’m an outsider here, you’re both writers. Book reviews in the traditional sense are incredibly nuanced, in my ex — like, when I read a book review, I’m expecting, like, the three stars at the end, or the four stars at the end, and it never comes, it’s almost like —
Paul: No, no, no.
Rich: An essay in and of itself and it’s quite…subtle.
Paul: No, good good criticism is supposed to be reflective and give people the ability to make a decision, but not even necessarily require them to read the book. It’s sort of a signpost.
Rich: Right. But Amazon is incredibly useful for physical objects, but movies, I feel like it’s a…it’s just, you know, like you said, what do you call them, experiential works.
Rich: Different tone entirely that takes hold.
Tom: And this is, that’s where the wisdom of crowds sort of works, largely. I mean, I recently had to buy some bolt cutters, and I mean, where is the source for bolt-cutter knowledge in the world out there? You could find a —
Paul: What were you doing, Tom?
Rich: Yeah. Did you read for an hour — that’s the thing, I could get caught, it could be an $80 purchase, but I will spend three hours reading reviews on it. [laughter]
Paul: Oh easily. Easily.
Tom: No, and that’s, this is one of the issues of modern-day life. You know, you can, I don’t know the be — you know the Best Made, they make —
Tom: Kind of fancy axes. I don’t know that they make bolt cutters, but they may. You know, so, you might think you’ve found the best bolt cutters, but oh, it turns out, actually, there’s this new pair with ash handles from, you know, blah blah blah. But…
Paul: You know what I’ve noticed happens is you start at, like, Amazon, and then you might hit, like, you know, a couple websites that sell products that are a little more focused. But then you might hit the message boards where the bolt cutter community hangs out?
Rich: It’s dark.
Paul: And now the day is over.
Tom: Yeah, there’s no way you’re coming out of that.
Paul: Cars are bad that way, too. Like, you end up in, like, the Jeep Wrangler community.
Rich: Yeah, I’m kind of a watch fan, watches are sort of like that. And it’s very…
Paul: Well not just sort of.
Paul: That’s an nightmare.
Rich: It’s a nightmare. You either go there and you’re in another country, or you don’t bother and you’re just a casual watch person.
Tom: Well and the weird thing about Amazon, to me, just as a consumer, is that it kind of flattens all of this knowledge and experience, where books are treated the same way as refrigerators and bolt cutters. And you start to get — I mean, I was looking the other day at, they have surgical training kits on Amazon, I mean, with soft objects that resemble organs that you can practice your surgery on. And there were a lot of reviews. [laughter] Three-star reviews, five-star reviews. What, what is the criteria —
Tom: For that? How would I even know that? How do I know if this —
Paul: Kidney feels wrong.
Tom: Right. [laughter] I was looking for a new white noise machine. There was one review that said the white noise was literally, was a bit too deep for us.
Rich: I would just read that sentence over and over again.
Tom: But there’s just no sense, there’s no established criteria for the quality of white noise, as far as I know. There may be, like, a Beaufort scale of —
Paul: Well I mean, it’s like literal, it looks a certain way when you see that waveform, like, it’s too deep is kind of amazing. Do people have opinions before Amazon? Like, it feels like we have this tremendous flowering of human opinion, and like, what were we doing, with all these thoughts and feelings beforehand? Were they there latent, or do you think we’ve sort of extracted them through the systems we’ve built?
Tom: Yeah, I mean, there was always, you know, word of mouth, but this is online word of mouth is how a lot of researchers refer to this, so it’s kind of word of mouth to the nth degree, where it’s exponential and it has an audience and it can play off of one another, whereas your previous word of mouth sort of was contained within your own, your own sort of community and that, you know, I use the example of the economist George Akerlof, what he called the lemon problem, kind of the used car market. The seller had all the information; the buyer didn’t really know if he was buying a lemon or not. So that really didn’t work out that well for the seller or the buyer.
So you know, when you’re traveling on the road, going to something like a restaurant was the same problem. Was it a good restaurant, or…chances are if you’re traveling in Montana, you don’t know anyone who’s been to that restaurant, so you could try to make your own educated guess, but the emergence of Yelp, you know, just sort of introduced information. It reduced that information asymmetry. You could know as much as any other person that had eaten at that place.
Paul: And you pointed out in the book that independent restaurants started to perform better, right, than they had before Yelp?
Tom: Yeah, because they acquired almost a brand-like transparency or, or, you know, a legitimacy or a…a sense of you knew what you were going to get to a certain idea — I mean, that’s always what brands were, to eliminate the mystery of…
Paul: As opposed to, like, going to Applebee’s. I recognize this from driving around, like going places with my kids. I think 20 years ago, we would’ve gone to McDonalds. Well now, it’s like, let’s go to like a weird diner that we know will be cool with kids, it’ll at least have some kind of experience, it’ll be something local, and it’s just, it’s just more fun, it’s more interesting, it becomes a little bit of an expedition, and you go about a mile off the highway instead of right off the highway.
Rich: If anything, it spun the other way, I mean it’s…it swung the other way, I should say, which is there’s so much…I mean, if I say, you know, “Thai,” “Lower East Side,” I’m gonna get hundreds of results, and usually you don’t get to, you know, the first 30 are five star on Yelp, and there’s a bunch of four and a half star…I’m still lost. I do this weird thing, I use OpenTable?
Tom: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: Which is an online reservation, table reservation product. And when I’m making reservations for a few days from now, I actually look for restaurants that don’t have all the bookings open, because I’m trying to get some kind of signal that it’s sought after, that it’s booked up and therefore it’s a little harder to get a reservation, meaning it’s a little bit better.
Because I’m looking for any sort of signal to help me distinguish 300 results, or 400 results. Somebody filter this down for me. Give me something. Yelp doesn’t really do — I mean, it doesn’t really do it. It’ll kind of filter out the ones that are, you just need to, they need to not be options. It’s just the disasters, get those out of my way. But then there’s still another 60 that are perfectly fine and I still don’t know how to winnow it down.
Paul: How do you choose a restaurant?
Tom: I still am pretty old-school in terms of media.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: You know, something I’ve read about. Usually I will have to have heard about it three or four times, and from a number of different sources.
Rich: A review, something that’s bubbled up, that somebody’s written it up?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. And then the secondary thing would just be living in Brooklyn, as I do, you know, there’s always just stuff opening in front of your eyes.
Tom: That you can’t —
Rich: And closing. [laughter]
Tom: Well, literally.
Paul: So you walk out the front door, like that’s how you choose a restaurant?
Rich: And he opens the paper.
Paul: Well, sure.
Tom: Well just the normal rounds —
Paul: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah.
Tom: Of my life, I mean, it’s sort of literal physical search.
Paul: But Rich is here, like, tallying things with a spreadsheet from OpenTable in order to see their rank —
Rich: I have a list!
Rich: I do. I use a to-do app, and one of my lists is restaurants I wanna get to at some point.
Paul: Ugh. I didn’t know that.
Rich: I think some of them have closed down by now. It’s an old list and I throw some stuff in there. But it gives me some sense of security to file it away. Oh, I know about you now.
Paul: Like, that’s interesting to me. I didn’t know that, that you actually do that, but you curate your own taste. I’m looking at Rich now. You’ve sort of…
Paul: You have a set of things and parameters that you like, and you’ve, like, created —
Rich: I trust certain sites. The infat — I think it’s called “The Infatuation,” I think it’s in other cities, but it’s pretty well-read blog in New York that reviews restaurants and bars and stuff.
Tom: You know, it is an interesting point. We are, on one hand, deluged with information, which is good, but there’s still almost a crisis of authority with that information. I mean, just an example, last night I had this taste for a fried clams.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Fried clam roll, like Ipswich…
Tom: So I went on —
Rich: What’s a fried clam roll?
Paul: It’s exactly what it sounds like.
Rich: Oh, like a lobster roll, but fried clams.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: Just, you know, it’s just a summer thing that I was going through. So I went online, typed in “best fried clam roll NYC,” led me to one — [laughter]
Rich: The NYC…
Paul: It happens a lot.
Rich: At the end…
Paul: It happens a lot. We do that a lot, yeah.
Tom: You know, immediately it led me to a couple ideas. I started to read down in the Yelp reviews. The first one I saw, I won’t name the place, but the person immediately was saying, well I’m from Massachusetts and this place, this was #1 not an Ipswich clam belly, it was only certain parts of the clam…
Rich: I love humans.
Tom: So you know, I was like, well jeez, maybe they’re right, because I really don’t know. I like —
Tom: I think I like —
Rich: Stumbled on an expert, right.
Tom: Yeah, but amidst that expert were 20 other reviews saying the place was great and they loved it, so it’s like, at the end of the day, I was paralyzed.
Paul: It’s amazing, right, that little negative signal blows your, like, ability to just…like we can’t average. It’s really bad, like, with things like day cares, where somebody will be like, you know, “Mrs. Gulliver has weird boots,” and you’re like, oh God, I don’t know if I can send my kids there.
Tom: Yeah, I think we are primed in general just to…dislikes hit us much more powerfully, things that, negative information strikes us much more powerfully, so yeah, you can, 10 friends will tell you this place was great, then the last person you’ve heard from tells you, “Don’t go there.” That’s what sticks in your —
Tom: The recency and the…
Tom: One person. Yeah, that one, I think the one negative review of ten is more powerful than the nine other positive Yelp reviews, if it comes across as rational —
Paul: Not like…yeah. Yeah, because you’ll see some, and it’s like, “The waiter wore a red hat,” and you’re like, OK, you can discount that. Like, we have that filter. I think I probably spend more time reading online comments about things than I do almost anything else. Almost not intentionally, like, I would never go in and go for it, but there they are. It’s the sort of great ambient noise —
Rich: That’s the — yeah. That’s the conversation.
Paul: Now are we all becoming kind of curatorial, is that a normal behavior now, to write down the list of restaurants, or are people kind of going, every time going in and going like, I’ll figure it out.
Tom: Well I think, you know, I was just reading an interesting book by Lawrence Scott called The Four Dimensional Human, kind of, with the screen, the smartphone screen as sort of the fourth dimension of life. And he was sort of making this point of how, you know, I think with a lot of other areas of life, we now have this filter that we apply. I read articles in a newspaper and I think, that would be a good, that’s the Twitter excerpt right there.
Paul: It’s terrible, isn’t it?
Tom: I’m at a place on a beach, I think, well there’s the Instagram photo. I already know which filter I would use. You know, I am out riding my bike and I’m thinking about Strava segments. So there’s this kind of, you know, the line between real life and the online life. So I think —
Paul: I’m sure people are doing that with Pokémon right now. That would be a perfect place for a Pokémon gym or…do you, you’re projecting the augmented reality back out.
Tom: Yeah, and so you go to a place like a restaurant, and you might have either absorbed all the kind of commentary you already read, or you put yourself in that mind that you’re writing an imaginary Yelp review, and…
Rich: Is this terrible?
Paul: People are —
Rich: That this is happening to us?
Paul: I, you know, it’s not like it’s causing World War II.
Rich: Fourth dimension sounds like we created another sense, but is it…I’m trying, I don’t know. I’m old enough to observe how young people do stuff, and say wow, that’s terrible, put your phone away and have a conversation with people —
Paul: I don’t think they’re any worse than we were.
Rich: Maybe we’re worse.
Paul: I think honestly, I think, younger people build interesting immune systems to the media around them. They don’t…there are times when I’m, like, helpless before Twitter, and I actually don’t think my niece or nephew have that problem, they’re just like [the aural equivalent of the ¯_(ツ)_/¯].
Paul: It’s another thing, it’s always been there, they decide to go in and out of it.
Paul: And I think, the generation immediately before ours was this very TV-addicted generation, and as I grew up I would hear all about, like, ah, kids are addicted to TV. I never cared that much. Like, I’d watch, I’d come how and watch two reruns of What’s Happening, be like, eh, it’s boring…
Rich: We’re overreaching. It’s not that bad.
Paul: I’d go out for a bike ride. It wasn’t that big a deal.
Paul: So I think, like, we’re keenly aware of how weak, as old people, we are, before these amazing temptations.
Paul: And then I think as they get picked up and messed around with, it’s just like, more of the stuff that they engage with.
Tom: Yeah, and I think, there’s a scarcity issue here too. Just for a music consumer, for example, when I was young I would try to hunt down this obscure stuff and it took a lot of work and effort and time, and now, you know, like, GG Allin is like a click away on Spotify from, you know, from Wagner, from…
Paul: I just want to advise our listeners, do not go looking for GG Allin. Just stay away.
Paul: That brings us to a point that I’d like to raise, which is that both you and Rich, and I think you’re more ashamed of it than Rich, are Rush fans.
Rich: Oh hell yeah. [laughter]
Paul: And the book, I mean, in the book you talk about this. Like it’s, you sort of had to make peace with it a little bit.
Tom: Well I mean, you know…
Paul: “Spirit of the Radio.”
Tom: I don’t know if “fan” is the word, but where I wouldn’t instantly turn the channel, or sort of feel that I wasn’t being cool for listening to the song…
Rich: I mean…
Paul: Rich, on the other hand.
Tom: You were there from day one.
Paul: Rich went and saw them at Barclays Center.
Rich: I’ve seen them a few times. They’re, it’s a pretty good live show. I…look.
Paul: What is the audience like?
Rich: Let me just put it this way: within a 40-mile radius of Barclays Center, nobody was getting IT support. [laughter]
Paul: That sounds about right.
Rich: They were all in the Barclays Center. Like, anybody whose computer wasn’t working or the wifi was down, they’re gonna have to wait for that Rush show to end, and everybody will come home and fix it for them. It’s a, you know, I was, like, 16, and my friend gave me a CD and the first song I put on was by Tor and the Snowdog.
Paul: [weary sigh]
Rich: And I was like, wait a minute, this is pretty heavy.
Paul: How the hell is anyone supposed to react to that?
Rich: Look, I’m still figuring it out, right? Zeppelin was talking about girls and drugs and partying, and I was maybe even younger, maybe 14, and this was science fiction.
Paul: Right, it was Ayn Rand.
Rich: It was kind of fantasy…
Paul: This when you became —
Rich: “2112” was a kind of concept album. This was, it was, like, Dungeons & Dragons a little bit. So as a nerd, you know, I’m a nerd, and it fit in, and so…there you go.
Tom: Well I think this is one thing that has changed, I mean, going back to my high school days. Things were just much more, I think, bifurcated. I mean, without even knowing much about let’s just say Rush, if you liked a certain number of other things, that would probably preclude your ability to at least admit that you liked Rush.
Tom: I’m not saying I had great taste in high school.
Paul: None of us did. The kids who did were always sort of, like, in retrospect, you’re like, well that was a little creepy. They had, like, really perfect spot-on music tastes, like, 10 years later you were like —
Rich: Yeah! It was a mess. You know, you’re sort of forming your personality, and everybody that was slightly more awkward than everyone else was into Rush. It was a great way to, I mean, you put on the headphones and then you were saving the world.
Paul: So you’re telling us sort of how your taste was formed.
Rich: Yeah. I mean, there was also the clan that painted the backs of their denim jackets with Iron Maiden, Eddie from Iron Maiden, and that was another…we could talk about them for a few minutes.
Paul: How, well how, how much of taste comes down to people being in these sort of subcultures and scenes?
Tom: I mean, massively. There’s…one of my favorite papers I looked at was called “Why Liberals Drink Lattes” by political scientists, talking about how —
Tom: How something like a coffee beverage could somehow come in to stand as a totem for one’s political affiliation. Because the title derived from, you know, these comments we heard, about —
Paul: Liberal drinking —
Rich: This was a research paper?
Tom: Yeah, a research paper.
Paul: Latte-drinking liberals, sure.
Tom: Yeah, driving their Volvos and their…even a car brand, it’s transportation, it’s steel and four wheels, and how does that acquire a political connotation. It’s just this process called homophily, where I think just the knowledge that other people are doing it that you want to associate with, whether you even, I think whether you even like that thing, you just start to feel that you almost should, because it seems to match up with a lot of other…
Paul: Is this the —
Rich: You create an association by…
Tom: Yeah, and this is where I have a kind of, the phrase that Carl Wilson uses that I like called “the guilty displeasure” which is when, you know, you actually don’t like something that you think you are probably told you should like, I mean, living in Brooklyn, I’ll just say something like, you know, Patti Smith or something…
Tom: You just need to like Patti Smith and to say that she’s great and you’ve read her book. [laughter] There are just things that kind of come with the territory of being in Brooklyn.
Rich: I think it’s part of the application process of living in Brooklyn.
Rich: Foods, music…
Tom: And I’m not saying I don’t like Patti Smith, I’m just trying to think of an example.
Paul: You better not! [laughter]
Tom: I mean, Hamilton, if you’re going to — if you made an anti-Hamilton case right now…
Paul: I’m ready to make an anti-Hamilton case…
Rich: That’s our next episode actually. [laughter]
Paul: Well there’s, but then there’s that, right? What, is there a name for sort of that flip, when something becomes too popular and everybody rejects it?
Paul: There’s a definite sort of, like, Hamilton, Hamilton’s too big backlash going on.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, psychologists talk about this thing, conformist distinction.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Where it’s sort of this unique human desire to be at once like one another, arguably going back to our time in small groups when, you know, social cohesion was very important. But at the same time, we are, we do have this desire to achieve our own individual identity. So even if you are in a strong grouping that is kind of conformist, you will find your own niche within that identity. So if you like The Beatles, two Beatles fans are talking, “Well, you’re a fan of John, I’m more of a fan of Paul.” You know —
Paul: Even within The Beatles fan subculture there, it starts to split up even there.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, and this kind of conformist-individual axes can work in funny ways. There’s one great study I saw, they looked at the people in the most…the groups that were kind of the most detached from the mainstream — we’re talking subcultures — those subcultures were the most conformist within those subcultures. So just to use the example, I don’t even know if this is true, but like, punk rock in the late 1970s, if you did not have a mohawk and had a safety pin, you know, you were not a punk rocker.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: So like…
Rich: There were sort of traits that affiliated you with the clan, in a way.
Tom: Yeah, so I think —
Paul: They’re in the book, Insane Clown Posse’s in the book.
Rich: I mean, it’s almost…
Paul: You can’t talk about taste —
Rich: Like a cult, right?
Paul: You can’t talk about taste in America without — because it gets everybody so angry.
Tom: But I think the phenomenon, if you guys showed up at work today wearing the same shirt, you know, it’s not really a big deal, but there’s this joke, right, you sort of laugh and you’re like, do you guys call —
Paul: It actually happens, it happens all the time.
Tom: OK, fine. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, strangely.
Paul: And everybody does laugh at it.
Rich: “Did you call each other this morning?”
Rich: Is the typical joke.
Tom: But why should that be a problem? Who cares? But there is this thing where we don’t want to feel like we’re exactly marching in lock — I think that there’s always this dynamic process going on, and it hits different people at different points. We’re not all, some of us are more conformist, some are more distinctive, but at some point it does flip, and I mean, you raise a good point. You hear these funny expressions, like, “Oh that just looked fresh to my eyes.”
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: You know, someone is tired of looking at a certain fashion. Why should we actually tire of a fashion? There’s not really a biological reason. Must be social, it must be about the, wanting to…
Rich: It’s expression.
Paul: Things are kind of moving on, you don’t want to be left behind. You need, you need to, so it’s not just that you have to signal out to your community that you belong, but that communities are kind of changing and evolving and you have to stay with the program.
Tom: Yeah, and just, it can reach such an extreme pitch that this was the, kind of the…conceit of the “normcore” movement, which was just, really, sort of parody, but…
Tom: The idea that we’re going to go against all the — our trendiness will come from our disobedience of the trends, by…
Paul: And just, we’ll just wear “normal clothes.”
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: So most people I think, I mean, you would assume as a human being that your taste is internal, it sort of springs from some great set of preferences and understandings within your brain, but what we’re talking about, really, is that it’s almost all learned, and then kind of interpreted and then sort of turned into action.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, there was just a brand-new study, came out after the book came out, unfortunately, but just looking at music, and they played, you know, a variety of tonal and atonal music to different groups, and one of the groups, I don’t know if you saw this, they played to was in South America, can’t remember, sort of one of these barely reached sort of tribes, and they —
Paul: So people who haven’t had a lot of contact with Western culture and Western music.
Tom: Exactly. They did not really express a preference one way or the other. They did not find the atonal music disturbing. They did not find the tonal music more pleasing. To them it was all just sort of noise, which really made this strong cultural argument, where other people have tried to make biological issues, which is not to say there are no inherent…
Paul: No, but if you talk to, like, music — musicologists will tell you that there’s certain, like, frequencies and harmonics that just work in a very specific way, and kind of please the ear.
Tom: But, you know, now the question seems open. Does it please the ear because that’s what we’ve trained ourselves to listen to —
Paul: We’ve started hitting spring —
Tom: Or what we’ve been exposed to —
Paul: Right. Right.
Tom: Yeah, I’m convinced that, you know, it’s really just a massive exposure thing, and that if you, you know, it’s sort of like the movie Trading Places. If you take someone out of this room and put the in an entirely different culture, within a year they’ll, their tastes will have changed and adapted to that local environment, and begin to appreciate the things they may have once hated.
Paul: So as you’re telling me this, in the back of my head, I’m always thinking about our world, which is about shipping software. And there’s a thing: we talk with people all the time, and people talk with us all the time, about various kinds of testing. Testing headlines, A/B testing, is that blue gonna do better for people and not red?
Paul: And there’s a part of me, as I’m listening to you, that’s just going, like, yeah, don’t even worry about it too much. You don’t, stop testing those headlines, just go with instinct and say to hell with it. Like it’s, it might be better to just be…sensitive to the, the norms of your community, than to run some big exhaustive investigation as to whether blue is a better color for headlines than red.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, with this book cover, there were two editions, blue and red. It was a bit of a joke, because publishing doesn’t usually offer you a choice of book covers.
Paul: Do they have different UPC codes?
Tom: No, one SKU, which is why, if you actually go to Amazon, not to pick on Amazon, I’m happy they’re selling the book, but there’s a disclaimer, we will, you cannot choose the color.
Tom: We will just send you either…so Amazon, this world of all the choice you can muster, does not give you the choice. I like to joke that Knopf, this venerable publishing icon in New York City, has disrupted the model of Amazon by simply issuing two covers.
Rich: I was gonna ask you if one’s selling better than the other, but since Amazon’s not doing it, you’re not gonna get…
Tom: We did a Twitter poll, and people responded blue was more favored.
Tom: But again, so this lines up with the finding in many psychological studies that blue is, when given the choice, abstractly, blue is the most preferred color of humans. So…
Rich: Across all colors?
Tom: So you could’ve, you could’ve just avoided any kind of design decision, just, OK, we’re gonna do the blue.
Tom: You know, and maybe that would’ve worked, but since you mentioned A/B testing, I mean this is something that…you know, publishing we don’t really have A/B testing, but a place like Netflix, I mean, there’s just a great piece on their tech blog. You know the rows that you get when you open the splash page…
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Those are now, first of all, they were constantly toyed with to, you know, what’s the —
Paul: Colorful action films about dogs.
Tom: Exactly. And what’s the order, what’s the grouping…and people, like online behavior, they generally don’t go too far below the first few rows, and they don’t go too deep into each row. But now they’re even taking that a step further and subtly changing the DVD, or the movie cover art.
Tom: So if it’s, if it’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, do we show this character, what if we show three characters?
Rich: Oh boy.
Tom: Which gets a higher click-through rate, which is what they’re all about, engagement, right? So these things are being, you know, happening in real time, which is, from a taste point of view, is incredibly fascinating, and we didn’t used to have such a tight feedback loop where…
Paul: But see what’s interesting is what you’re talking about here is something that’s very in-the-moment. Like, they’re gonna get that feedback over a period of like a month or two, and then probably lock into it, like OK, that’s what works better for this one, but the reality is there’s all these subtle things at play that means that six months from now that may not be performing in the — it’s a much more dynamic and complicated human system than someone making a choice at that moment is going to, to sort of indicate.
Tom: Exactly, and suddenly, three people on a DVD cover is getting a huge amount of click-throughs, and they shift everything to multiple characters, that may suddenly seem recherché, exhaust — it might exhaust the reader, or the viewer, and suddenly someone comes up with a minimal cover that just has a title, and it’s like, wow, that catches my eye.
So…this is the, the thing with taste. I mean, why does taste change, and why do, why does suddenly something look refreshing, and…so what I do think is happening now, with that kind of shorter feedback loop that things like social media present is that these trends happen faster and faster, and you know, you can, if you think back to the old fashion model of the Parisian runway shows, then they would produce a book, and then that book had to be sent back to the United States, then the designers in New York would see it, and they would eventually get to the department stores in Chicago, and then Peoria. Now, you know, I mean, someone sitting at home on Instagram can look at what’s happening on a Parisian runway instantly.
Paul: Mmmm hmmm.
Tom: Whether they can actually, you know, to the extent to which they can act on that is another question.
Paul: Or Katy Perry can tweet out a pair of sunglasses with 90 million followers on her Twitter account and, and there’s sort of a new, there’s new kinds of distribution of taste. See what’s interesting to me is we’re in this world where people talk constan — statistics are seen as validation, and they’re seen as truth, but it’s very hard for people, because really, when you think about those Netflix statistics, all they’re backing into is a contemporary portrait of culture and preference at the moment. The thing that you talk about a lot in the book and that we’re talking about here is that it’s all so fungible, and it’s really confusing. We see this a lot, like, that dataset, that Netflix dataset, feels like, probably after two months, it’s gonna be useless. You’ve gotta keep it moving, and constantly keep tweaking with it after —
Rich: I think that’s probably true.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, if I could just go back for a minute, just to talk about something there about Katy Perry and the sunglasses, I think this is something that happens all the time now, which is that, I think, taste is never more dynamic and more interesting the more people have access to things. When you have sort of a bifurcated society, you have the wealthy and you have the poor, the lines of taste are very clean and clear and they don’t really mix. When you, you know, the whole problem of taste really began to take off with the Industrial Revolution, as more people had access to the same things.
Paul: So poor people are suddenly allowed to have taste.
Tom: Or, to have access. I mean…
Rich: More options, really.
Tom: Yeah, so you know, with music, for example, so now, you know, when I was in college it was sort of special to go to the record store and get a Japanese pressing of some obscure album, and now it’s all online, so where do you find that distinction, that source of distinction. How do you signal your sense of specialness — now it becomes about these things that other people can’t get. Not only was I at the LCD Soundsystem show at the Panorama fest, I went to the after-party and did this, and did that, and so it’s…
Paul: Well and also there’s less, I put you on the spot with Rush, but that’s kind of what you’re talking about, like, all these sort of, like, class-focused taste indicators start to blur together now. You might just have that on your playlist, and a Katy Perry song, and also some Beethoven symphonies, and that’s normal. It just sort of it all collages, in a way. So then there’s these other indicators that you need to go out and find, because…
Rich: It’s incredibly…I think it’s difficult…I find it hard, I’ll say, you know, I’m really in the mood to dive into a new album, and I just don’t know where to go. I mean, Spotify, you know, they bought Echo Nest, which was sort of their leap into recommendations and whatnot, but it’s still hard. It’s still hard to find something that you want to dive into for a few months. It would take, it takes work, in fact, to find something that connects with you based on your taste. Like, they’re doing the best they can to sort of draw a profile of you and then put stuff in front of you. And frankly it sort of works.
Paul: There was an article today in Buzzfeed, or maybe within the last couple of days, about the fact that 50% of Spotify listens, or like, Spotify playlist listens, are to a human-curated playlist. Like, there’s a talk about the algorithm deciding everything, but there’s actually people who are payed full time to curate playlists for Apple and for Spotify and…
Paul: Other services like that.
Tom: Yeah, I do think, per Echo Nest, that the weekly Discovery feature has gotten better, but yeah, I still am often just going to Spotify because I read about something in a book or I read a review in The New York Times. It just for me is useful —
Rich: You go pull it up, yeah.
Tom: For me the archival quality is more interesting than the…
Tom: Discovery quality, but…
Paul: So you know there’s a part of this book I really wanted to talk about, which is you sort of guide people as to how to observe and identify and think through their own issues of taste, so they’ll have to actually go and purchase the book in order to do this. It’s not available in any libraries. There’s no other way to read it except to give Tom money. Um…I’m assuming you can get this in Kindle format, too, but it just doesn’t even have any colors.
Tom: Good point, yeah.
Tom: You can just imagine.
Rich: Well no, it would. If you pulled it up with the Kindle app on your phone…
Paul: It’s gonna have one color. Wouldn’t have like a nice random function that would give you one of two colors.
Rich: That would be nice.
Paul: That would be really interesting. You could see who reads, you know, it would be like, red…red makes somebody flip further?
Paul: OK, so the book is called You May Also Like. It is published by Knopf. It’s by Tom Vanderbilt. Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. We really appreciate you taking the time to come in, Tom, thank you.
Tom: Thank you.
Rich: I’m just glad we connected on Rush. Thanks, Tom.
Paul: Thanks. That Tom Vanderbilt’s a bright young man.
Rich: He really is. I felt a little dumb after that show.
Paul: That guy’s got it together.
Paul: He really does. You know you just meet somebody and it’s like, oh, that’s how you do that.
Paul: That’s how you write a lot of books and think really…
Rich: And he dives in, which I respect.
Paul: Hoooo boy. No, the research on this, on the taste —
Paul: On the taste book is really impressive.
Paul: So we’re very grateful to have had Tom Vanderbilt in the studio talking to us. My name is Paul Ford.
Rich: Rich Ziade.
Paul: This is Track Changes, the official Postlight podcast. Postlight’s a company that builds uh…it’s a product studio, actually, in New York City. We build websites, apps, all those digital things that people need us to build. We build them. That’s what we do.
Paul: So Rich I’m gonna see you next week.
Rich: As always, Paul.
Paul: I’ll probably see you back at the office in about five minutes.
Rich: Yeah. See you in a minute.
Paul: [email protected] if you need anything. We love getting your emails, thank you.