Tag Archives: trends

Google Trends as life advice?

[this post first appeared on Medium]

I was in Portland last week looking for artisans to interview for the Artisanal Economies Project and stumbled upon a vintage clothing store.

A clothing store is not perfectly artisanal, but I figured it qualified. It is, after all, curatorial, small batch and non industrial.

The woman within was happy to help but she told me that her store was threatened by insolvency. We talked for maybe 30 minutes and it became clear she had stalled. She could not stay in her present location, but she wasn’t sure where she and her husband should move.

“We’re from the midwest…” Marie trailed off, “If you have any suggestions, please let me know.”

Back in my hotel room, I wondered if Google Trends could help. I had the honor of talking to Hal Varian about Google Trends several months ago, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore what it can do.

I searched “vintage clothing” and it was clear that this is in decline nationally. Marie is right to be concerned.

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Google Trends allows us to drill down by state. Oregon shows lots of volatility and a still more marked decline.

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Google Trends ranks the states. This chart shows the states that rank low. And it turns out that Oregon ranks very low indeed, 45 out of 46 states. By this reckoning, Marie lives in almost the worst state in which to have a vintage clothing store. So moving anywhere is probably a good idea.

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The next chart shows the states that rank high. It suggests that California or New York might be better choices.

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Google Trends let’s us drill down to the city level.

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This suggests Eugene would be better than Portland. (And Boise would be very bad indeed.)

There are several issues here.

1 The chief of these is whether Google Trends is, for Marie’s purposes, measuring what we want to measure in the way we want to measure it. I will leave this issue to readers. I would just say that these data must be dramatically better than the ones that Marie and her husband now have at this disposal.

2 Should Marie and her husband trust a life decision to these data. I think the answer has to be ‘yes.’ Again, at this point they have NO alternative data with which to work. (They appear to be considering a return to the midwest simply because they come from there. From an “industry” point of view, this is anti-strategic.)

3 The last question is the most obvious intellectual one. Why should vintage clothing be doing badly in Oregon? (Marie told me that there used to be 12 stores in Portland and now there are only 4.)

I would have thought that vintage clothing would be one of the best ways of ‘keeping Portland weird.’ That is to say, I would have thought that vintage clothing would have resonate with this and other cultural things that define the locality.

4 This bring us to the prize question. By the looks of things here, a change is taking place in Portland. Consumer taste and preference has shifted. It is an anthropological truth that a shift of this order cannot be trivial. It must indicate a deeper change taking place in the culture of Portland, in the very “mentality” (as the French social scientist would call it) of the city.

Any change of this kind is interesting to an anthropologist. But when it is something taking place in a city now famous for setting the trend for some part of the rest of the country, then, yowser, this is very interesting.

Best of all, this change is, at least for me, counter intuitive. I would never have guessed it. I have no ready explanation. I am mystified. And this means that the change in question is, at least for me, disruptive.

Now to figure out what it is…

5 Google trends has several clear and verified uses. Marie’s example that it might also serve for the purpose of life navigation. Career counsellors and life coaches, take note.

(post script: “Marie” is a made-up name.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st century

reviewLogoBlock-1Several months ago, Robert Fogarty asked if I wanted to contribute something to a special issue of The Antioch Review called “The Future of Museums.”

I did! It’s been years since I worked at the Royal Ontario Museum and this was my opportunity to see if anything I’d learned in my career as a consulting anthropologist might serve as a way to think about the future of these precious but challenged institutions.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay. (The full text may be found in the issue now on the stands [Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring 2016]. You should be able to buy the issue here soon.)

Remaking the Museum for the 21st Century: A Hakluytian opportunity
Grant McCracken

When I became the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, I was a young man and naïve on virtually every count. I see that now.

If anything could save me, it was that I was recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology. This program acted on its graduates like a seminary or a yeshiva. We entered the world with our eyes on fire. I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and, more particularly, what to do. My task, as I saw it, was to make North American culture course through the museum. It was to capture the contemporary world in archives and exhibits.

This was not quite the way the museum saw my task. The Institute (ICC) was an expedient designed to address the Museum’s (ROM) most pressing problem. The membership was dying. The average age was 60-something. Once a great center of life in Toronto and Canada, the ROM needed institutional rescue. Broaden the audience, that was the thing. But broaden the idea of culture? If you must, but really, on second thought, please don’t. The ROM was as ambivalent as I was naïve.

In the intervening 25 years, my career has taken me out of the museum and then out of the academic world altogether. This essay represents an elliptical return, a fly-by that enables me to bring things learned in the “deep space” of the consulting world to bear on the museum world that has in some ways always remained my sun.

The news from this perspective is both grim and heartening. Let’s start with grim.

My argument is that some museums might wish to turn their powers of observation on the future. They could make themselves a little like Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt (1552-1616, pronounced “hak-loot” and “hak-light”) was an Elizabethan chaplain, a private secretary, and a deeply curious man who applied himself to a particular task: knowing everything one could know about the new world and how to get there.

Here’s the nub, or a nub, of the essay:

And this is where the museum comes in. The museum could make itself a center for gathering intelligence, quizzing explorers, assembling reports, and collecting maps. It could be the place people go to see the future and more specifically their organization’s future. It could build a system of knowledge about the future where others are now “spectacularly casual.” The museum has a Hakluytian opportunity.

Making systems of knowledge is the museum’s traditional brief. To be sure, the Hakluytian system doesn’t look much like the Victorian one. But then the Victorian mandate is well in hand. Our knowledge of natural history, while incomplete, is extensive and intensive. So is our grasp of human cultures and especially their material cultures. I don’t believe the museum world has ever identified these as the only systems of knowledge that matter. We could embrace a post-Victorian mandate and go a step forward. Two steps actually. The first of these is to build a systematic understanding of contemporary culture. The second is to make a window on possible futures, staffed by smart people and furnished with good ideas.

Steampunk Cometh?

EmberWhile in London, I had a chance to catch up with Trevor Davis.  Davis is one of the people responsible for the IBM Social Sentiment Index and the prediction in January of 2013 that we should expect Steampunk to move from its status as a niche enthusiasm to something more mainstream.

IBM offered its prediction in a wonderful graphic.  (Click on the image to get a larger view.)

IBM-STEAMPUNK_FINAL_01.08.201_v2

I came home from 3 weeks in London to find a Pottery Barn catalogue waiting for me.

Here, I thought, was just the place you might expect to find a steam punk reference…whatever other cultural trends might come swimming into view.  I began to read.

The results were vexing in the way this kind of work is so often vexing.  There was both no evidence and some evidence of steampunk  in the Pottery Barn catalog.

No, there is no explict reference verbal or visual.  No helmet made of  leather, studs, and brass fittings.  No science fiction weaponry as if designed by a Victorian.  No elaborate time pieces that somehow look to be, mysteriously, steam operated.   No glasses that look like something lifted from a 19th century optometrist.  There was nothing obviously, unmistakably out of the Steampunk design handbook.

And that’s a pity.  These catalogs, stemming perhaps from the brilliant early work by Stephen Gordon for his Restoration Hardware catalogs, now have range they didn’t have in the Sears Roebuck days.  The contemporary catalog lets in lots of things in addition to the product.  Things are staged beautifully and with great care.  So it’s not inconceivable for a Pottery Barn to include a Steampunk helmet or watch for illustrative, evocative, purposes.

Still the fact that there is no explicit reference to Steampunk is NOT evidence that there is no Steampunk influence.  I think you can see it in the color pallet, in the mad scientist theme, in the laboratory.  As follows:

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In point of fact, something happens to trends as they move from the margin to the mainstream.  They are obliged to give up some of their defining features.   This is a little like the social climber who is obliged to give up some of her friends if she wants to rise.  To include a Steampunk helmet would mean quoting an aspect of the  trend that is too strange and wonderful for the average American household (at least the kind who shop at Pottery Barn).  (If I may voice a note of skepticism against this argument, there is something pretty strange about the skulls.  The American household is perhaps less timid than we think.)

This necessary “gearing down” of the trend is the reason that early adopters often disdain the trend as it enters the mainstream.  Clearly, it’s been diminished or “dumbed down.”  Or to put this another way, the trend must give up some of its extreme characteristics to find a larger audience.  In a word, it must be dedorkified.  (In effect, this reverses the work of the enthusiastic early adopters / inventors who delight in dorkifying the trend in the first place.  I think we can probably agree that the whole issue of dorkification deserves more careful study.)

Trends are Diderot packs.  They are a bundle of ideas, aesthetics, materials, colors, shapes, motifs.  Not all of these are welcome on the voyage from margin to mainstream.  Some will move on.  Others will fall behind.  And this may help explain why the signature pieces of the Steampunk look are not in evidence by the Pottery Barn catalog. Indeed, the absence of these things are exactly what we would expect of Steampunk in this new context.  In sum, the absence of proof is, in a sense, proof of proof.  As it were.

So now we have a problem.  The most defining design signatures, the ones we can used as proof of a trend’s diffusion, are, in some cases, the very things that will be “edited out” by the diffusion process.   It’s not that the Steampunk influence is not there in the Pottery Barn catalog.  But there can be no influence unless it is in a sense rendered invisible.

All of this suggests we need a more robust methodology for identifying a trend in motion.  Perhaps some combination of colors, shapes, objects, with a statistical feeling for how far from random is the presence of certain elements especially in certain combinations.  This tool might enable us to say that our intuitive feeling that the Pottery Barn catalog is in places “pretty Steampunkish” has foundation…because the copresence of these colors, objects and shapes is precisely x far from random.  Naturally we would to examine all the Pottery Barn catalogs and see if we can show when the trend enters the catalogs and whether this corresponds to what we know about the development of the trend itself.

Trends have internal dynamics.  We also know that whether and how fast they move through the social world depends on a set of diffusion dynamics that we are relatively good at thinking about.  (My own modest contribution can be found here.)

But our work as students of the trend is not complete until we create a model of all the trends, and all the decisive economic, historical, social, demographic, technical, digital, and other factors that make up the context in which the trend flourish (or fail).

So was IBM right?  Is the planet called Steampunk exercising a tidal pull on the oceans of contemporary culture?  Reader, you decide.

Trend watch: big weddings in decline?

(Photo by Lyndsey Goddard. See more of her wonderful work here.)

At the VCU Brandcenter last week, Gautam Ramdurai gave a dazzling display of the tools that Google puts at our disposal when it comes to tracking trends.

This weekend I looked at weddings.

By one reckoning, weddings account for $52 billion of expenditure in the US.  And most of it goes to local “mom and pop” operations: florist, caterers, photographers, seamstresses, musicians and planners.  That makes weddings a mighty engine of our local economies.

Here’s what I got from Google Trends:

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These data are interesting because almost no one else seems to be talking about a decline in the industry.  In fact, most of the chatter on line describes a wedding industry that scales ever upward.

There is some small journalistic encouragement for the “decline” argument.  Writing for the NYT, Helaine Olen says,

The lower-key wedding, if still a bit unexpected, is having a moment…

Turning to everything from public parks to the living rooms of friends and family, couples are recreating the traditional wedding one ceremony at a time. […]

The Wedding Report, a market research firm, has been tracking the change, noting that in the last year, couples participating in the company’s surveys have increasingly reported a desire for “fun, romantic, simple, casual and unique weddings.”

Vendors concur.

“The backyard is the new ballroom,” said Amy Kaneko, an events planner in San Francisco.

Stacy Scott, a caterer in Marin County, Calif., added, “I think people are waking up to the insanity that is the wedding market.”

Still, it would be wrong to rush to conclusions.  The Google Trend data is merely suggestive.  (Google searches for these topics may be falling because there is now an “oral culture” shared by friends that supplies the knowledge and contacts needed to stage a wedding.  Hence the decline in searches for “wedding planner.”)  And the New York Times story may merely report the exceptions made vivid by the larger trend.

But let’s say there is a trend here.  Let’s say weddings of the “hang the expense, let it rip, more is always better, nothing less than sumptuous will do” kind are in decline.

There is LOTS to think and say about this trend.  “Big weddings in decline” is a trend that must have many causes and many effects.  (I fear especially for those local economies.)

I will leave it to commenters to dig into the cause or effect of their choice. And, yes, if necessary, to insist that I am delusional and that there is no evidence that the big wedding is in any kind of peril.

Artisanal Trend Timeline

I gave my Culture Camp in London last week.  I feel a little like a peddler producing my new array of household cleaners and brushes.   “Here’s a lovely notion no planner or strategist should be without!”

Here’s one slide that people seemed to find useful.

Artisanal Trend Timeline G. McCracken II

(Apologies if WordPress compresses this slide too much.  Try clicking on it for a larger view.)

The idea was to show trends in motion.  The events picked out in blue represented the pre-artisanal era, the period in which we liked our food fully industrial and the more artificial the better.

(In Camp, we talk about all the machinery perfected for the war effort applied in the late 40s and 50s to food, and the great explosion of prepared food and fast food brands, including of course Tang, that utterly artificial foodstuff endorsed by astronauts!)

Then the reaction, the repudiation, of artisanal food begins with the counter culture and the emergence of the person who was to be the goddess of the new movement, Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse, the one that was to prove the beachhead of the new movement.  Waters and CP brought a new idea into the world and then sent a diaspora of chefs and enthusiasts who went out into the world to colonize it in the name of the artisanal.

And then comes the reaction to the reaction.  Those events picked out in green are harbingers of the new, as new innovations and inclinations rise up to propose new approaches to food.  This is not to say the artisanal trend will disappear.  Some of its transformative effects have changed us forever.  But a new perspective will emerge, and it will set in train a great revolution in chefs, restaurants, TV shows, cooking magazines, and food culture generally.  And it will change the way we are eating in a decade or so.  At this point, all we have are “faint signals.”

As readers of this blog now, I am looking for more sophisticated ways of looking at culture.  We need these devices if we are to make sense of the great turbulence of our culture.  But I think they also help us clarify culture for clients for whom it is mysterious.  I think this Artisanal Trend Timeline is a good way to say, “Ok, here’s the bigger picture.  This is why we believe you should be primed to launch product X at moment Y.”

If you are interested in attending the Culture Camp, please let me know at grant27ATgmailDOTcom.  The next one will be in New York City possibly in the late summer.

If you want a high rez version of this slide, send me an email at the same address.

Denial and the new, nimble, agile corporation

Ember Status ItemSome time in the last year, I spend 40 minutes and 55 slides telling a roomful of senior executives about a trend that was “on approach.”

Trend X emerged sometimes in the 1960s and was now moving towards them with something like the force of a Tsunami.

Trend X was in the process of disrupting the industry, hollowing out the client’s business model and turning their value proposition inside out.

Then something happened.

Denial happened.

For the rest of this post, please go to the HBR blog here.