The Burden of Anecdote

The Burden of Anecdote, by Mark Chussil

This is my modest contribution to a vigorous LinkedIn discussion about Twitter. I edited it slightly to make me sound smarter than I originally did. Some in the discussion argued good-humoredly that Twitter is an important new force. Others argued good-humoredly that it is a useless new farce. Both groups had copious supporting anecdotes and analogies.

As you read here, think of the arguments about competitive-strategy options you’ve heard.

Fascinating. This is fun. Thank you all. Seriously, thank you.

This is just like politics: anecdote and analogy. And, just like politics, there’s always an anecdote and analogy that supports one’s side. I happen to find one side’s anecdotes and analogies more compelling than the other side’s, but who cares? I haven’t any followers. [If you “tweet” well, you accumulate people who “follow” your every 140 characters.] I don’t tweet, therefore I am not.

Something always works, or at least seems to work, and the people who jump on its bandwagon appear prescient. Something always fails, or at least seems to fail, and the people who stay off its bandwagon appear prudent. This is why we have, and need, the scientific method.

Okay, okay, the quick movers with twitchy texting fingers are groaning at the fuddy-duddy who wants actual evidence of efficacy. The lack of such evidence is why I don’t buy into, say, astrology and homeopathy. I do, however, appreciate my late grandfather’s advice: if you eat borscht for 90 years, you’ll live to be old. He missed by six months. He should have eaten borscht longer, I suppose.

But back to Twitter. I appreciate that evidence of efficacy may be hard to come by, especially if no one is collecting evidence other than the bandwidth consumed or the number of numb-fingered twitterers. I would provisionally settle for a testable causal theory that, if true, would explain why Twitter would work under X conditions and not work under Y conditions. We also have to define what it means to “work.” Boost sales? Improve the quality of decisions? Make our lives happier?

In lieu of evidence and a causal theory, I say that if you like to tweet, go ahead and tweet. You don’t need to justify it — and you cannot justify it —any more than you need to justify a preference for cabernet sauvignon over pinot noir. Recognize that the burden of proof (not the burden of anecdote) is on you if you want to convince the rest of us that we “should” tweet.

If you don’t like to tweet, don’t tweet. You don’t need to justify it either, nor can you.

Besides, who needs to be in such constant communication? But enough of that. If you’ll excuse me, I simply must check my email.

A poetic note about the lack of evidence. “I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some.” — Herbert Rappaport (1913-1999?).

Further reading: House, MBA and “How To Think Better.”

Update, June 2010: And now I tweet, for ACS and for my book Nice Start: Questions Only You Can Answer to Create the Life Only You Can Live. Follow @BusinessWarGame and @NiceStart, respectively.

Update, October 2010. See Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. And then there’s Amy McMullen’s retort in Salon, Malcolm Gladwell is wrong about the revolution.

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