The Anecdote Era Swamps Data
Collecting personal stories was difficult until social media and smartphones
“Anecdotes aren’t data” is a phrase that used to hang on the wall of a director at a non-profit where I once worked. Yet, we are living in the age of the convincing anecdote that goes to scale and bounces around the echo chambers like a bullet in a bell.
Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s testicles are better known than the efficacy data associated with vaccination status — the low rate of breakthrough cases, the even lower rate of severe illness for these cases, and the still lower rate of death for the vaccinated. These are not data people can easily recall or quote with confidence, but we all know about that counsin’s friend’s junk.
Observing social media feeds via Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, it’s easy to see why anecdotes are triumphant. With great media formats and visual clarity, and some great out-of-the-box production tricks built into phones and platforms, we’re staring people in the eye who are telling us stories that win over some minds. Anecdotes are stories, and stories beat data.
This exploits many vulnerabilities of human perception, as the human mind generally creates stories without effort, making any data point seem to tell a story. For instance, listing out the raw number of cases each day can drive the perception that Covid is rampant because a number of a few thousand suggests a big story. But when you translate these same numbers into percentages, the low numbers that emerge are calming, and the story changes. When you further process these into vaccinated vs. unvaccinated rates, and then throw in the percentages that result in hospitalization or death for each group, the raw case numbers seem uninformative and random.
Flip this around, and an anecdote can draw on the same story-making impulse, turning a single instance into a story about the tip of an iceberg — a sense that much more is going on, and we are seeing the first inkling. The idea that a story is false or standalone or unrepresentative comes to us less naturally than belief and extrapolation.
The Internet is tilting toward an anecdote machine, with TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and more mainstream media promoting personal stories and one-to-many interactions above trusted intermediatries interpreting broader trends and working out the numbers using even elementary school math.
The era of “I had my Covid jab, and here’s my anecdote” seems to be gearing up for another round based on boosters — so watch Twitter for anecdotes about being wiped out, or feeling no effect, or having a sore arm, or feeling a little cruddy a half day later. Then, wonder where the data are.
This shift toward the anecdote and away from the data is worth clocking. It’s everywhere once you mark it, and corrosive, exploitable, and unhelpful.
That said, stories are often more effective, so what we need are consistent stories about the data. Where are you, CDC, with a daily story about the data that proves compelling? Where are the data stories to counterbalance and overshadow the anecdotes?