I love online statistical gadgets like Facebook’s Gross National Happiness app. The chart goes back to around September 2007 and presents a line graph representing how happy selected countries are based on the positivity and negativity of peoples status updates on Facebook. I find an occasional peak at this chart enlightening, not only in a “Wow! I would have never guessed that” sort of way, but also in the, “huh, that’s peculiar” sort of way. For example, what was it about Easter in 2009 that made it so much better then Easter in 2008 or 2010?
It’s also fun to imagine scenarios about what could have happened. For example, Mother’s day 2008 may have gone something like this:
(It’s Mothers Day 2008, a teenage hipster is stalking in their room in front of their computer attempting to update Facebook Status. Mom enters room, not particularly angry, but in that seemingly, “don’t mess with me” ambivalence that Mom’s, and only Mom’s seem to muster.)
Mom: “What are you doing? You know it Mothers day, way don’t you come downstairs and hang out with your Family?
Hipster: “Fine, just a minute…”
(Mom turns and leaves room maybe a bit quicker than usual. There is no auditory sigh, but the impression of a silent sigh hang over the hipsters room. The Hipster quickly types into the computer: “Mom just busted into my room, being forced to go hang out with my family.”)
Do our statistical systems detect a bit of negativity there?
Compare that to an imagined Mothers Day in 2010.
(It’s Mothers Day 2010, Mom is sitting in front of her computer typing, “It’s so nice to have most of the family here for Mothers day, of John couldn’t be here, he had to go with Jane to visit her Mother, but they sent a nice gift basket…” College age hipster walks in in.)
Hipster: “Hey Mom, what are we doing for dinner tonight? and will we be back early?”
Mom: “I think your Dad made reservations at the new Italian place for 6:30. I assume we’ll be back around 9.”
Hipster (muttering as he turns and leaves): “Cool!”
(Mom turns back to her computer to detail how excited she is about trying the new Italian restaurant, Hipster pop’s out his Mobile and starts tapping away, “Get to try new restaurant tonight, then should be ready to party, BTW should I accept my Mom’s friend Invite?”)
Now that just reeks of positivity.
Do we know what it means?
In the fantasy situation above, I imagine that new technology, in this case Facebook, crosses over from the niche hipster realm to a level of ubiquitousness where even Mom has a Facebook account. With this crossover, attitudes change. There is, of course, no evidence that this represents a realistic scenario that has replicated itself across the country to the extent that it can affect the sort of change the data presents. Clearly though, assuming that the testing methodology has remained constant, something happened.
If we look at the National Happiness in the U.S. since it’s inception we see a slow overall rise. Apparently people in the U.S. were not that happy in 2007. It should be noted that this slight up tick in happiness, while perhaps not unique to the U.S. alone, is not representative of all countries, many of which actually saw their happiness decrease over the same time. Surely there are political and economic reasons for this. There was a big election in 2008, however; the most recent election in 2010 seemed to indicate that we weren’t entirely sold on the results of 2008. (Without getting overtly political, one could perhaps make the argument that 2010 was based more on our fears then on on our actual well being or at least our happiness.) The economy, may in fact be worse today then it was in 2007, it may be in better shape going forward and looking up instead of down, but it’s hard to make a pure economic justification for an increased happiness. Maybe, if we truly are a nation of couch potatoes, this can be accounted for better television programming? (I don’t really think this is the case).
At this point I guess all we can say it means is that maybe, at people, at least Facebook users in the U.S. are, as a group, happier today then they were in 2007. Beyond that it’s all conjecture. There is real meaning here, I’m just not sure, from the data presented what it is.
Origin of Gross National Happiness
Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by the former King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck (who was also known as the “Fourth Dragon King” which is kind of a kick ass sort of title). This was an alternate economic indicator to Gross National Product (GNP) since it was assumed that once a certain level is reached, a higher GNH was better then a higher GNP. One problem with GNH vs GNP was that while GNP can be measured objectively, GNH can only be measured objectively. Even in the case of Facebook’s metrics, there is a significant level of subjectivity, not to mention that it would likely not be relevant to Bhutan considering the internet (and television) where both banned until 1999.
Technology, Statistics and the Creepy Line
What makes things like Facebook’s Gross National Happiness meter possible is its ability to collect an analyze a large amount of data. This data is largely mine and yours, some of it we put out for the world to see, some of it we may hide behind some form of privacy controls so our bosses and parents aren’t privy to the events of last Saturday night. For some people this sort of data collection and aggregation may bring to mind the “Creepy Line” which was coined by Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt in one of his “Maybe I should have vetted my outbursts with Public Relations before I spoke” moments. (Specifically, Mr. Schmidt said, “There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” I’m not sure context is important for such a broad statement, so we will leave it at that.) I’m of the camp that says aggregation of anonymized data for such purposes is not only interesting, but generally good. The creepiness factor is there lurking in the background wondering, “how do I know they are anonymizing the data?” From a technological perspective, it’s very easy to successfully pull personal data out of a database with no personally identifying data (this data may be further cleansed to remove names and specific locations that may, for example, appear in a post). I’m good with this. That said I also know that it is equally possible to collect this data and create equally significant data sets that are not anonymous and point directly back to me and you and anyone else who has every been online.
There are a few things that keep me from being creeped out here. First, I’m sure that people out there other then Google and Facebook already have this data, and I’m happy in the fact that there is so much of this data being generated constantly that anyone trying to make personal use of it across the board is so overwhelmed with data that they can’t catch up with it to do anything terribly sinister. Second, I’ve come to the conclusion that the creepy line has already been crossed, and I don’t think it’s significantly helping anyone else or more importantly hurting me. (Ever notice that you get the same ads being served up on different web sites over and over again? After a while they just sort of fade into the background… yes they all know where you’ve been.) Finally, if we decide to get creeped out by this, then we should be equally creeped out by everything new and innovative. There are lot’s of new tech things I could happily live without, however there are many tech things that make me quite happy that today I’d rather not live without. Apparently, at least since 2007, things have generally made me and others a tad bit happier, I’ll take that.