Choosing Tom Vanderbilt’s ‘You May Also Like’

Picking this book in an age of endless reading choice.

May 16, 2016

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt.

Published in May of 2016.

Why do we like what we like?

Can our preferences be decoded? Given enough data, can what we will choose be predicted?  How much are tastes even our own, rather than the product of marketing, manipulation, and persuasion?

These are hard questions to tackle. Luckily for us, we have Tom Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt is the author of one of my favorite books of popular nonfiction - his 2009 Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).  

In You May Also Like, Vanderbilt illuminates our own tastes by traversing the boundaries between cognitive science and culture.  Liking, as Vanderbilt points out, is learning - and what we learn to like depends on the context in which we make our choices.

From of the most interesting chapters in You May Also Like concerns the Netflix rating system.  If you were like me, (and like Tom Vanderbilt), at one time in your life you were an obsessive DVD movie rater.  We would rate each movie and tv show that we rented from Netflix on a scale (in stars) of one-to-five.  The more movies we rated, the better the Netflix recommendation engine would get.  Rate enough movies, and Netflix could recommend a movie that we had never heard of - but that we had a good chance of loving.

As Vanderbilt recounts, Netflix’s move from a DVD-by-mail company to mostly a streaming video company has changed how the service now recommends movies.  With streaming, Netflix has detailed data on exactly how each of us watches video.  It turns out that a self-reported star rating system is an imperfect guide to how we actually watch videos.  We might rate something highly, but not watch the video all the way through.  We may rate something else lower, but spend hours binging on the show.

Similar chapters on music (what we choose or don’t choose in the age of iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora), spices, cat shows, and food choices all serve to illustrate Vanderbilt’s central thesis.  Tastes are almost always constructed.  They change over time based on circumstance and context.  People with expert taste are not any different than you or me - they have just spent more time thinking hard and very specifically about choice in their narrow domain of expertise.

As I was reading the Netflix story, I kept thinking about books.  Today, I choose the books that I want to read based on 6 main factors:  a. topic, b. author, c. word-of-mouth, d. reviewer reviews, and e. customer reviews, and f. Amazon suggestions.

Amazon is sitting on an unimaginably huge pile of data on how people actually read the digital books that they sell.  Amazon knows just how much I listen to my audiobooks (through Audible and the Audible mobile app), and Amazon knows just how much I read e-books (through my Kindle).  None of my own reading data are exposed to me - nor are the aggregate reading data of everyone else.  We have no idea how effective Amazon’s promotion of given books influences our book buying decisions.  We may think that we are choosing the books that we want to read - but what if Amazon is really choosing for us?

Before you dismiss this idea that our tastes (and choices) are susceptible to influence, you may want to read You May Also Like.  Vanderbilt does a bang-up job of exploring just how bad we are at understanding our own preferences.  We do poorly in explaining why we liked something in the past, and we are absolutely terrible at predicting what we will like in the future.

Knowing that we are not good at understanding our own tastes - and that our tastes are susceptible to influence - is not a reason to despair.  As Vanderbilt points out, we can get better at choosing if we spend time thinking about why we like what we like.  We can do what the marketers and advertisers are doing to us, in that we can deconstruct our own choices.  Bringing the tools of metacognition to what we consume may make us better, or at least more informed, consumers.  The choice is ours.

What is your taste in books, and how do you choose which books that you will buy?

What are you reading?



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