Monday, January 26, 2009

Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters

Update: The article What the Web knows about you is a frightening companion to Tancer's book. Author: Bill Tancer Format: Hardcover, 240 pages Publisher: Hyperion (September 2, 2008) ISBN-10: 1401323049 ISBN-13: 978-1401323042 Bill Tancer's book first hit me as a strange cross between a voyeur's look at the Internet and Orwell's 1984. I got the distinct impression as he was detailing just what he could learn from tracking our web searches, that "Big Brother" had arrived. That's something of an exaggeration, since all of the personal information is stripped out of Tancer's data (hopefully), but I found it amazing what he said he could learn about people, just by looking at patterns in searches. Tancer's innate curiosity about people is definitely communicated throughout his writing. It's not that he's interested in specific individuals per se, but in how people as groups search and what it means. His blog at Hitwise (where he works) can be reached at the URL www.ilovedata.com and I think he means it. I think it's almost like Tancer is "in" love with data, what it can tell him, how it can be manipulated, and so on. The chapters weren't as tightly associated as I'd expected. Going through the book was like reading a series of loosely associated vignettes, each with its own special theme, and all tied together using the topic, "data". Tancer is quite casual; actually conversational in his writing, so the book is an easy read. That's a good thing since, if you don't love data, the book could have been impossibly dry and static. If you are looking for a detailed, penetrating business analysis of how Internet searches and marketing are associated, try enrolling in an MBA program. You won't get it from this book. Not that the information isn't particularly helpful, but it is presented for a very wide readership. That means it doesn't contain the amount of information or level of detail that specialists in their fields would find terrifically compelling. It is rather compelling for everyone else, though. While the first half of the book exists to establish the foundation for how data patterns can be analyzed, the second half describes how certain phenomena on the web works and can even be predicted. Ever wonder how sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace literally took off overnight? Tancer provides information to at least try to explain these viral phenomenons. You can see how Tancer makes the connections in data points as they crisscross across the Web 2.0 landscape, even when he's describing how a little known band called "Arctic Monkeys" became a smash hit within a year of their birth; to the astonishment of the band members themselves. As I rocketed through the book and approached the final pages, I wondered if, as Tancer puts it, we are what we click? Can human behavior be derived from Internet behavior? In the world of Web 2.0 (and rising) and having just elected our first Internet President, it certainly seems like it should be so. After all, according to Tancer, whenever we're online, we leave a trail of the sites we visit like so many breadcrumbs. It's this trail that Tancer follows to come up with what he presents in his book. On a personal level, I rather hope we aren't just what we click. I would rather believe that people are more than just what they look for on the web. On the one hand, if you're reading this, you are interested in reading a book, which is outside the web's sphere (at least in theory). On the other hand, you're reading this book review on the web and will probably buy the book at Amazon. Maybe you'll email the link to this review to a friend, post it on Facebook, or tweet it on twitter (or all that and more). I suppose that means I'm wrong and Tancer's right. To find out more, buy his book and go through it. 240 pages go by fast, so you'll be at the point of making your own conclusion in no time.

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