2015 has been referred to by many as the Year of the Nerd: blockbuster comic book movies; the dominance of internet-based entertainment over traditional cable counterparts; the rise of craft food and drink as blends of art and science; technology and social media like Snapchat disrupting the usual dance of the political parade in a pre-election year. Data, data, data… it’s practically a chant, whispered at first just a few years ago, and growing into a cacophony of number sets, inferences and hasty conclusions for every industry and philosophy of late. Who’s to blame for this resurgence in data worship, this Age of Reason 2.0? If Nate Silver, of the blog FiveThirtyEight, comes to mind, you'd be right to point the finger in his direction (no, not that finger…).
Way back in 2008, a quiet blogger using the pseudonym “Poblano” started dropping incredible posts incorporating hierarchical data from polls into surprisingly accurate predictions about the upcoming Presidential election. Eventually Poblano revealed himself to be Nate Silver, known for developing the game-changing player performance prediction system for Major League Baseball, PECOTA. Using the same deep-data-diving techniques he used to create that successful system of tracking and projecting, Silver made headlines (and perhaps some envious critics) with near-perfect predictions for the campaign trail. The New York Times swooped in to incubate Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight (an homage to the number of of electors in the US Electoral College), which rapidly gained a following of policy wonks and dataphiles. Suddenly, psephology — the study of elections via data — was cool.
Nate Silver and his blog are the perfect example of the Analyst Archetype of social media engagement. The Analyst can act as a great catalyst for discussion and thought on an issue, using facts to frame arguments within the confines of reality, rather than allowing ungrounded ideological assertions to dominate. At a time when talking heads on TV have a surreal legitimacy and most Americans rarely dig deeper than a headline, the Analyst represents a tenuous thread to fact-based reporting sorely missed in most quarters. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, cornerstone to American political discourse: where there was once days-long, in-depth debate using facts and figures as barbs, there’s now a brief tangle of soundbites vying for airtime. Perhaps now, more than at any other time, the Analyst is crucial to society as a bellwether of real understanding of facts by the public, offline and online.
As an Analyst, Silver’s frustration with inadequate data collection methods or, more egregious, assumptive conclusions being revered as fact, can only be lessened by sharing his methodical results. With the blog, Silver says he was trying to “apply the same scientific spirit that we've used in baseball to the political world.” 2010 through the election of 2012, politics was all Silver lived and wrote. He stepped down from most of his sports writing and commenting gigs, making time only for writing his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise, which laid out the parallels between baseball math and accurate political predictions. His Twitter following ballooned, as did the number of “wannabes”, hastily recruited by competing media platforms to fill this new niche — consumable data-rich projections. The campaign trail and election in 2012 was now primed for discussion at the data-relevant level, wholly unlike 2008 and before. Silver, unlike traditional polling stalwarts like Rasmussen, predicted all 50 states correctly, including nine swing states the old guard had cautiously deemed “indeterminable.”
Where the Analyst differs from the Reporter archetype lies in the indirect nature of the Analyst. Generally, it’s probably a somewhat boring day-to-day existence, reading tables and indices — not interviewing leaders and dodging bullets to gather a story. However, Silver’s approach in his writing and online persona has made math and logic, well, sexy again. Post-2012 elections, Silver began broadening the scope of his blog, studying the implications and specifics for topics as widely ranged as board game design, home economics and, of course, sports. In 2014, FiveThirtyEight parted ways with the New York Times, and joined the ESPN family, still retaining the diverse topics and discussions beyond politics and sports.
Following @NateSilver isn’t much different from following the official blog account, @FiveThirtyEight: Silver tends to share content from the site, as well as other data-centric posts, just sprinkling in some personal posts and pictures. His interactions with followers and Twitter personalities are unassuming, positive, and in general, somewhat bland. What resonates with followers is the power of harnessing factual evidence, and sharing the logic behind the results. The ideologically-bound still butt heads with Silver’s efforts, but there is no denying the lasting impact the Analyst can make for an otherwise less-than-analytical public.