Just about all of us rely on trend data in one way or another. Whether for tracking our small business sales or chatting about the number of active Twitter users, we reference trends for both formal and informal uses. A trend, though, is a measurable change over time; it describes history. A trend does not actually say anything about the future. Humans, however, are incredible pattern recognizers, so when we see those trend line graphs we reflexively extrapolate that line. We often act as if trends actually talk about the future, but they actually only speak to the past.
In order for a trend line to speak to us meaningfully about a future possibility, in order for it to be used in some fashion to forecast the future, we need to understand the story behind the data. Why has that trend been going up? Why do sales always seem to bottom up in that particular month? Why are so many falling out of the middle class? Yet, we often reference trend data without having a firm grasp of the reasons – or the competing theories – that explain the data.
We don’t really understand a trend until we know the story behind it: the people, passions, and patterns driving its plot forward.
And of course we need to be careful that we haven’t substituted a story line that we understand for what might actually be happening.