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Working for anything that involves analytics or data – you work in a sea of numbers. Numbers, analytics and associated data provide us with sales points, R.O.I. for clients, and add value to any effort in the online world. Data has also risen as a means to generate awareness, market a platform, and spark dialogue. And no data presentation has become more buzz-worthy in the past few years than the almighty Infographic. But with the rise of this well-presented and flashy data, an old adage rings more true than ever – “Don’t believe everything you read”. Numbers can be manipulated, and data can be spun. So, let’s take a look at a handful of infographics from the last couple of years, on an array of topics, with a slant towards the skeptical.

Whoa! These infographics are pretty big, so we made them into thumbnails. Click the images to view the entire infographic in a new window.

Foursquare’s year in review: 2010

(Released Q1 2011: click to embiggen)

Hot Damn! 381 Million check-ins! Ace Hotel in NYC is the most checked-in to hotel in the world! MTV has the most
popular brand page to follow! But you know what they didn’t tell you? How many people actually use the service, or how many new subscribers they gained in 2010.  Or the average number of check-ins per user. Indeed, you’re shown a lot of supposed data points here, but aside from a small handful of actual numbers – you’re not actually being given any real data.

While they’re throwing that single, massive number at you, they’re not giving you any context in which to analyze it. And, from my experience, the average foursquare user that I know makes a bare minimum of 5 check-ins per day, if not many many more. But again – are you given that data? Nope. Ace hotel had the most check-ins, but what was the number? Moreover, what are the average user’s demographics? I can tell you what I assume them to be, based on this data, but I’d rather know the real information.

There’s another [grammatical] adage that rings true here:

Context Dictates Meaning

(and you’re not being given any context)

Who is Occupy Wall St?

(Forbes / Jess3: Oct 2011)

First off, I’m a fan of what Jess3 does – for those who aren’t aware, they’re some of the best in the next-level data visualization biz. In general, they make some of the most straightforward, well-presented and artful infographics around (as well as a whole lot more).

And just LOOK at this thing – All the data. Complete breakdowns of what they asked. Easy to digest. Great info, and they even tell you the exact number of people who responded to the survey – 5006.

Ah, but the survey – there’s the rub. The title of this infographic is “Who is Occupy Wall St?” – but that’s not the question that this data answers. Not in the slightest. The exact question that this data answers is the following: “Who are the people who were inclined to answer a modal/pop-over survey when visiting during a 7 day period in the thick of the Occupy protests?”

They give you all the information to know that this is a mere sampling – and a voluntary one at that. In the article associated with this graphic at Forbes, they openly state that between September 18th and October 28th, the site received 4.7 million unique visitors.  This data was compiled between October 22nd and 28th.  Assuming the uniques were steady from day to day, there would have been 114,634 unique visitors per day. 5,006 respondents out of 802,439 – that’s one damn small sample. In fact, it’s only 0.6% (less than 1% – I went there). I would posit that this is not who Occupy Wall St is.  If it were:

Only 93% Support The 99%.

Selling Out: How much do music artists earn online?

(April 2010:

 And sometimes… there are infographics like this. Is the data wrong? Not necessarily (Though, at this point it is old. That’s important).  I decided to look at this one because it is inherently relevant to what we as a company do, and to what I do as a part of this company.  I also chose it because for almost two years now, it’s been thrown all around the digital music corner of the internet, quoted, requoted, reposted and analyzed, rewritten and reformed over and over again to lay out some, while not mathematically incorrect, fallacies of the music industry.  Given that you’ve probably seen it at one point or another, here are the points about this infographic that I’ve always felt needed to be made.

Online streaming is not a revenue generator unto itself. It’s a marketing tool. One that can actually pay you some money – maybe not huge, but you do see a return. And there are other ways that you can see returns, though they may not be directly correlated. The fact of the matter is that the average user who subscribes to a streaming service is one who is a true FAN of music. They’re the ones going to shows (buying tickets, making you $$$). And while they’re at that show, they’re buying a t-shirt (paying you $$$ on something that you make way more on) or buying vinyl from the merch table (paying you more $$$ on something that you control). They’re talking about your music online, becoming your evangelist to the less musically or technically inclined, prompting more offline/indirect sales (paying you more $$$). The fact of the matter is that musicians have always done better by touring than they have through sales, whether physical retail or online. When it comes down to it, no matter what type of musician you are – for the fans, they want to see you, they want to have the experience of being at the show, seeing you play, everything else is a reminder of that. If you look at this chart and think to yourself “yeah, the music industry is shot, I can’t make money doing this” I’d say this to you – go play your music. Play it in front of anyone that will listen to it. That’s how you’re going to grow as an artist. That’s how you’re going to grow your fan base. Everything else that can generate revenue for you is an extension of that. Are there exceptions? Of course. But by and large – playing your music is always going to do more for you than making sure that your tracks are on ITunes, or not on Spotify.

So, where does that leave us? Are infographics evil? Are they all out to get you? No. Not at all. We’ve made them ourselves. Hell, I actually love a good infographic – data is king in my world, and seeing it presented in new, creative, artistic ways – I love it. But like everything else online, you can’t simply accept them. You can’t sit back and assume that because it’s flashy that it all must be true. Ask questions, look for ALL the information, be a little skeptical, and always remember  – Just because it’s an infographic, doesn’t mean it’s true.

  • Gregor Dodson

    Great post Gray. It’s difficult to hit the sweet spot between showing data that no-one can make sense of and summarizing / simplifying that data in to information that is understandable and digestible, but not misleading. 

    Dan Sinker wrote a great piece on the future of ‘Data Journalism’ recently, (, touching on the need for data and tech savvy journalists.

    The ‘how much artists earn’ infographic sticks in my craw too. But I take issue with your description of streaming services as a pure marketing / publicity play – they are becoming real revenue drivers in their own right. That’s not to say that these other revenue streams aren’t important, but I think people have been too quick to dismiss streaming as a real revenue opportunity.

    The core problem with that graphic is that comparing streams to CD sales is equivalent to comparing a lump sum to an annuity. When someone purchases a CD (or downloads MP3s) they are paying up front for thousands of individual listens to those tracks (assuming your music isn’t terrible.) In contrast the streaming revenue keeps coming, month after month, year after year, long after the initial release – like an annuity. 

    If my own habits are anything to go by the convenience of a subscription streaming service means people will also stream tracks they already own. Right now I’m listening to an album by the Decembrists on Rdio that is also sitting in the iTunes folder of my hard drive. Talk about having your cake and eating it!

  • Gray

    Gregor – thanks a ton for the response, as well as the insight. Your points on streaming are absolutely valid, and ones that i had fought with how to properly convey, eventually not to be included. You did far better than i would have!

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