Thrown off the scent

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In the wake of our online lives is a trail of data that reveals our hidden preferences.

The people we admire. The books we never finish. The places we linger.

Every interaction – however small – is recorded somewhere, for someone (or, more likely, something) to pore over and analyse.

Every time we enter a new destination into our maps, connect to a new wifi point, or click to expand an image, we are leaving little morsels of data, like Hansel and Gretel with an infinite bag of digital breadcrumbs.

Of course the data we leave behind, even when intentional, is still heavily dependent on context.

“Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, data scientist and author of Everybody Lies, points out the sharp distinction between Google searches and Facebook posts,” explains Tim Harford, who writes as the Undercover Economist.

“A sentence in a Facebook post beginning ‘My husband is …’ will tend to continue with ‘the greatest’ or ‘my best friend’. A Google search beginning ‘Is my husband …’ usually continues ‘gay’ or ‘a jerk’. What we say proudly on Facebook is very different from what we whisper to Google.”

This is a utopia for data scientists (and perhaps a paranoia inducing nightmare for everyone else).

But in amongst all of this information – and this noise – there are some real gems and fascinating insights.

Scientific illustrator Terri Nelson recently noticed a spate of people were leaving negative reviews for scented candles – which seemed odd to her.

“There are angry ladies all over Yankee Candle’s site reporting that none of the candles they just got had any smell at all,” she wrote on Twitter.

Academic Kate Petrova spotted the Tweet – and pondered: “Could it be because of the COVID-related loss of smell?”

“Since the beginning of 2020, customer satisfaction with scented candles has been dropping at a much faster rate compared to unscented candles.

“So, if you are doing any virtual Black Friday shopping today,” Petrova concluded. “And if you still have your sense of smell, maybe buy a scented candle and leave a nice review. And no, I don’t work for a candle company. I just like looking at data.”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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