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Experts and the Individualism Paradox

Image from Slane Hosiery.com

It starts as an innocent search for a pair of running shoes. But very quickly, Cho finds herself in a world predicted by Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. Can she escape?

I’ve recently encountered a purchasing dilemma, rather prosaic yet exotic to me as a recent inductee into the sport of running. I needed a new pair of running shoes. The pair I had was nearly four years old. The pair had only approximately 20 miles worth of wear on it but my friend Eun Ha, who’s the consummate runner, informed me that I had committed a cardinal sin in the runner’s world, shoes were to be replaced at least once a year.

How was I to purchase the right shoes? Running shoes are performance oriented, not merely looks oriented, and as she warned, “Running shoes are ugly.” I suppose I could look online, flip through women’s magazines and running journals, ask for opinions, go to shoe stores and try some on, but could I trust the store clerk’s words if all he/she wanted to do was sell me something?

This led me to ponder the question: How do we decide on what to consume, whether it be food, media, entertainment, clothing, healthcare and services? We depend on other people. In deciding to spend money, we rarely make independent choices, because we don’t trust ourselves. We believe someone else has done the research, knows better, and has more information than we do.

It’s two things, really:

1) We know we’re not experts

2) We need reassurance.

Which is why advertising is so insidiously “helpful”. However, these days, we allow many other things to influence us, in addition to advertising. It used to be that if you wanted to purchase or experience something, you would either check Zagats, The Michelin Guide, Fodors, or whatever expert authority was available. We’d see movies or purchase books based on the reviews of film critics such as Peter Travers or Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times Book Review. But as the rise of the Internet and the practical use of it have became pervasive, we’ve eschewed expert opinion in the thought that it could be bought or influenced by advertising/marketing departments and thus being irrelevant to the every day person.

And besides, the rebel in us doesn’t want to bend to the popular, institutionalized opinion. It’s the snarky snobbery of wanting things that are off the beaten path, Lonely Planet style. In the end, as more and more people subscribe to this thought, we’re all just becoming the same 'independently thinking' individual, getting our vintage look at Urban Outfitters.

As a society, we’ve become obsessed with the honest, unbiased, authentic opinion, the individual one unfettered by commercial interests, the untainted recommendation from someone just like me. Is it coincidental that this is correlated with the widespread use of the internet in America? Approximately 68 percent of Americans are online, according to an internet penetration study done by Jupiter Research and reported by ClickZ Magazine. By 2010, this number is projected to increase to 74 percent. As you can imagine, usage prompts content creation and more information is available and accessed than ever. We now consume most of our media on the Internet, (free), versus printed matter, (for pay – excepting, free local papers, such as Village Voice, The Onion, LA Weekly), even ones that have counterparts in tangible glossy or newsprint form.

The Internet is a much easier forum to discuss things in than print media because of its instantaneous nature which further facilitates and encourages this exchange. Also, because the Internet generally has no strict limit, as does the printed page, opinions don’t need to be edited for lack of space. And of course, compounded with anonymity, there isn’t much accountability. In short, there isn’t much of a filter to the quantity and quality of opinions.

You can find opinions and criticisms on any subject online. To name a few, if you want to buy shoes, you can go to Zappos.com and read reviews by other stiletto wearers, who’ll comment on whether the shoe is true to size, wide, and comfortable. Want some opinions about a book before recommending it for your book club? Amazon.com allows readers to comment on the book so you can decide whether or not it’s worth an evening’s discussion. Or if the latest Mario Battali venture, Del Posto, is up to gourmet snuff, you can check out chowhound.com to see what the gourmands say. Perhaps you’d like an opinion on the latest mascara introduced by Christian Dior, which promises to lengthen, define and curl. Those reviews are available on makeupalley.com. Curious to know which resort was visited most often in Anguilla, an eel shaped island in the Caribbean? Read the individual accounts of honeymoon travelers on Tripadvisor.com.

Maybe all we are commitment phobes afraid to make a mistake. So we try and benefit from other people’s mistakes and experience. With so many opinions available, we need to validate our opinionated instincts. It should be easy enough to find opinions that match our own, to validate what we already feel and think. On my way to Montreal for the jazz festival this summer, I sat next to an off duty game theorist, (a professor at McGill University), who described confirmation theory to me.

Basically, people will continue to flip coins until they get the answer they want, the confirmation they were hoping for. Essentially, this is the inevitable conclusion to which browsing the internet for opinions leads. Likewise, people will shop for opinions of others online, until they can find one that matches the opinion that had been forming inside their head since they first came up with the idea to consume. Which meant, in my case, I would do research on a pair of running shoes that I already liked, and would endlessly search it, hoping to come upon enough reviews that validated my predilection.

Photo from Now Toronto.com

The democratization of criticism/opinions has led us to an indecisive paralysis of sorts, which is as palpable and tangible as a stone gargoyle sitting on our chest. Of too many options, whose trouble is now compounded by too many opinions. The problem with this of course, is that now you trust the majority, and everybody can be a reviewer. There are no barriers to entry, other than a computer and an internet connection. It’s as if all expertise or qualifications have gone out the window. There are far too many options, so we must now narrow them down.

I beg the question, why should you trust people who are unfamiliar with your preferences, someone whom you know extremely little about, if at all, to give you ‘good’ or ‘accurate’ opinions? It’s simply illogical. Why would we think Mr. Average Joe would know any better than us? Do we actually hope that this anonymous reviewer is Michiko Kikutani writing under a nom de plume? Perhaps we think that the person having purchased an item or service has become an expert through the purchase and the experience of it, but unless he or she has purchased and experienced a large quantity of product/service/entertainment, one purchase does not an expert make. There is no context, no basis for comparison, for a qualified review.

Slowly but surely, the prevalence of individual opinions is returning us to older, tried and true methods of decision making. Amongst my friends and colleagues, I’ve been noticing this trend. The trend is towards expert filters, where experts and qualified amateurs will help digest and synthesize the many divergent opinions that are out there. Sites such as Wine Spectator or RottenTomatoes.com pool together the opinions of many critics. What we need now are less individual accounts but instead, qualified information filters and experts. As for experts, there are two types:

1) This person is an expert (and has experience, and has surveyed a huge amount of similar goods, therefore is qualified) and therefore will be able to give you an accurate idea of how things are. (i.e., Roger Ebert)

2) This person is an expert on your preferences, so while they are not an expert on any particular product, they do know your preferences enough to extrapolate/hypothesize what you would like. (i.e., your best friend)

In the end, who should influence our decisions?

Whomever you choose, buddy. For me, it’s a combination of friends and experts that I trust. Our friends are worthy of trust because they are experts on our preferences. I recommend the following to help you find your consumption guru:

1) Get to know an expert – someone who’s opinions you know and respect, and are familiar with. I tend to agree a lot with The New Yorker’s Sasha Cohen on music and with Roger Ebert’s film reviews. We’re both adequately sappy.

2) Or putting your bets on people who are experts on you.

How does this apply to my running shoes dilemma? Guided by my friend, I went to a store called Jackrabbit. The store provides an interesting service: they put you in a pair of sneakers and videotape how you run on an in-store treadmill to determine if you are a pronator or a supernator. They then recommend sneakers based on their analysis and allow you to run on the treadmill with the options you’ve chosen, before you make the ultimate purchase. This has many benefits and also allows you to be an expert yourself, on your feet and about your feet, while being assisted by people who know running shoes very well. You get both the requirements of actual expert, (honed by experience with quantity and able to compare), and preference expert, (yourself), getting possibly the best fitting shoes.

I was elated with my purchase but my laptop greeted me when I returned home. I wanted some reassurance, so like the dutiful consumer that I am, I googled my sneakers. It was rated highly on Amazon.com, the users loved it on Zappos.com, and even runner’s world appreciated its construction. After I was satiated with all sorts of validation, that of the running shoe expert, an expert on me, and of the faceless Internet masses, I glided reassured along the Hudson River, enjoying a long run on my new ASICS Cumulus 9s. Indeed, it was a very happy consumer ending.





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