Yahoo is hiring academic economists and other reseachers, we learned today.
This development is driven by a couple of things. As a newcomer, Google stole a march on incumbent Yahoo and Yahoo would like it back. Google has data miners, but it appears often to act as if it can win and sustain advantage with great technology alone. If Yahoo could add new user sensitivity, this might help close the gap.
Second, Yahoo has staggering amounts of data that can be used in house and sold to others. In July, there were 482 million unique visitors, each of whom, over the course of the month, spent around 4 hours viewing around 240 pages. This generates data like crazy: over 12 terabytes a day.
It’s a little like the old story from the Dole pineapple plantations of in 20th century Hawaii. Dole would can the pineapples and pour the juice into the ocean. Finally, someone said, "You know, I think you could sell that stuff." In this case, of course, the "juice" doesn’t just make the corporation richer, it makes it smarter.
In fact, this should work like a virtuous circle. Orphan data get a home. Academics get grist for the mill. Yahoo gets more consumer centric. More consumers join Yahoo and spend more time there. More data is generated. The cycle begins again.
But why these academics? Economists have formidable powers of pattern recognition to be sure. And they are good at working with just this kind of data. By why proceed is if the numeric measures were the only ones available to us? Economists too often act as if they have taken a vow of noncontact, that they cannot engage people unless their existence has been registered at a distance, and they cannot know about these people unless data have been metriculated out of the real world into the realm of the number.
Well, if we are dealing with the census data for a couple of years ago, these are all practices well advised. But that 12 terabytes that Yahoo will collect today is from people who are not only alive, and in fact probably still on line. If we think we see a pattern, there is no reason why, with the appropriate permissions, Yahoo could not poll players and convene focus groups on line. Indeed, there is no reason why the economist could not make contact with a living, breathing, blogging individual and determine the "whys" that make the "whats" make sense.
The trouble of course is that economists don’t ask because they have the suspicion they already know. The actor is self-interested, rational, and advantage seeking. But come on. Reason not the need, as Lear is made to say, or our lives are "cheap as beasts." If this were the only motive at work in the human communities, markets and cultures would be simpler, flatter, more predictable and less "exuberant" than they prove so persistently to be.
We can discover these other motives, extracting them from those terabytes of data, but not if the Yahoo economists think them away.
My conclusion (and I think you saw it coming; it is, after all, self interested) is that all that the mountain of Yahoo data is a task, a trek for economists and anthropologists working together. Take us along as sherpa if you have to. But take us along.
Delaney, Kevin J. 2006. Hoping to overtake its rivals, Yahoo stocks up on academics. Wall Street Journal. August 25, 2006.