Overwhelmed by Choices — How Social Networking Can Help, Part 1

Last month I spent 12 hours in a car (6 hours each way) with 2 teens and their fully loaded iPhones®. I think among the 3 of us we had enough music to listen 24/7 for at least 12 days straight, with no repeats.

I heard a lot of music called Dubstep, totally new to me, which Wikipedia defines as: "a genre of electronic dance music that originated in south London, England. Its overall sound has been described as "tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals." Some of it I liked, some of it I despised. We had some overlap in taste on some pop music, and a few of the non-misogynistic and non-sex-filled rap songs. It was an informative trip for me, music-wise.

And of course they were less than thrilled when I took over the music for an hour each way, and plugged in my iPod® with the jazz, classic rock, Latin, and pop that I like. (In fact, they both put their earbuds in and listened to their own tunes during "my" time, but I digress.)

Driving that long stretch of Highway 5 in Northern California with no distractions other than the teen music selections pumping loudly out of the speakers got me thinking about the plethora of choices we have today as consumers in every category. I could have spent days researching electronics, phones, furniture, clothing, appliances, but realized I had to limit myself (or this blog post would be a book, lol), so I chose four categories that were relevant to my life (and most likely to yours too):
  • Music
  • Groceries
  • Online books
  • Local restaurants
So we start with music. Ignoring all the other sites where you can download or listen to music, I looked only at iTunes®, which Apple® touts as "the #1 online music store". And while I knew there was a lot out there, I really didn't get it. Did you know iTunes now carries more than 18 million songs* worldwide?
    I can hardly wrap my brain around that number. Doing a few calculations — if you did nothing but listen to music 24/7, it would still take you over 141 years to listen to that entire playlist. Apple has a program called Genius® that generates recommended playlists for you, based on your current library, its ratings system and collaborative filtering. But again, how on earth do you even begin to select music from 18 million songs? Staggering.

    And then let's take a look at the local grocery store. When my neighborhood store was purchased a few years ago by a big conglomerate, one of the first things they did was whittle down the number of selections. So instead of eight varieties of Special K cereal, now you can only buy two. Yet, the average grocery store in 2010 stocked 38,718 items. You could spend hours just reading the backs of an entire aisle of cereal boxes, trying to decide which box is the healthiest, cheapest, lowest sugar, most fiber, least preservatives, ....

    The third item on my list is electronic books. Do you own a Kindle yet?  I don't, and I'm back and forth on it, because I love the feel of an actual book in my hands, and I enjoy turning pages — I'm not sure I'm willing to give that up. My son got one for Christmas last year which he is enjoying immensely, and I have a quite a few friends who love theirs. My son and my Kindle-owning friends can choose from more than 950,000 books, including New Releases and 110 of 111 New York Times Bestsellers, all available on amazon.com.

    And now to my last example. I queried how many restaurants there are in my hometown of San Jose, California. Guess what?  4,084. So if I ate at two restaurants a day — say lunch and dinner, every single day, I should have eaten at all of them once in a little under 8 years. (I remember doing a similar exercise a few years ago about the number of wineries in California, and I know it was several years worth if you visited one a day. :-) )

    We, American consumers (and this is probably true for most first world countries), are flat out overwhelmed with choices in every part of our daily lives. How do you find new musical genres or artists? Select books or restaurants? Or choose what you want to cook/eat at home? I don't know about you, but sometimes I'm almost paralyzed by the choices. I want to close my eyes and do the eeny, meany, miney, mo selection process, which I guess is one way of dealing with it.

    And yes, you can ask around, call your friends, bring it up at the gym, but chances are those particular friends haven't been searching for a great vacation read, or some really crazy running music lately. So where do you turn?

    Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post coming soon. :-)

    * From the iTunes website