Humans classify things, people and behaviours. Into types. Typologies have found use in a diverse range of disciplines from psychology to anthropology and linguistics.
Classifications enable pattern recognition – or generalisations – within homogeneous groups; they also help make extrapolations. So they can be quite useful.
For businesses, typologies and classifications have great value. Market segmentation is all about recognising potentially profitable segments froma large, non-homogeneous population and then targetting one’s marketing campaigns to gain the attention, interest and spend of the specific, profitable subset.
But typologies have shortcomings hence potential for abuse. For instance, racial or gender classifications can deteriorate into unhelpful shorthand that enables easy discrimination. Not everyone is a fan of Carleton S Coon‘s work on races and evolution. Look up ‘women childbearing age discrimination‘ and you will find much evidence to see how easy it is. A sobering experiment conducted by Bertrand and Mullainathan asked that vital question: “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” about whether racial discrimination on the basis of black versus white names is real in hiring situations.
There are disagreements on the validity of some generalisations. For instance, Penelope Trunk, a business blogger, is a fan of generational generalisations, while Ben Casnocha, entrepreneur, student and blogger, believes collective consciousness is over-rated, particularly in context of generations. Both of them are right in their own way and both lines of arguments have limitations.
Generalisations – and stereotypes – work mainly because they are statistically significant when vast swathes of data are considered. Which means they talk about the vast bulge of the Bell Curve, not the leading and trailing edges. As that great sage of all things wise, Homer Simpson said: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers”. My wry view is that generalisations are mainly meant as warnings.
So what of the internet? Do we know various types of web users, or social media users, or bloggers? The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ because many typologies have been proposed. ‘No’ because there is no universal consensus.
A post later this week will delve into web user typologies, so do come back.