Recommendations Should Be Useful

Reccies should satisfy the following criteria:

  1. An understanding of the recommender and recomendee’s contexts.
  2. Personal experience with the recommendation.
  3. Experience with relevant alternatives.

Without this they’re about as useful as tits on a bull.

A friend asking for “good industrial tunes for while I’m filing TPS reports” is an easy suggestion to make if you both go to the same gigs. You have shared history in the relevant topic, you know the context (genre, purpose, etc), and you’re probably going to suggest stuff that you’ve at least heard.

This is a simple example of a useful recommendation, but the problem is the world is full of our own terrible recommendations that we don’t always realise; so let’s look at what violations of the three principles look like.

Recomendee Context

“What phone should I get?”

This is the best question to get curs to come out of the woodwork and show their whole ass. Immediately saying iPhone, Samsung, or Google are terrible without more knowledge of the situation. What do they need the phone for? My retired mother-in-law mostly uses a phone for calls, texts, and occasional photos. An entry-level smartphone from AusPost absolutely nails her needs and is cheap as chips; anyone who suggest she goes and drops nearly $2k on the latest Samsung Galaxy is a fool and a knave. Even an older model refurbished iPhone is unnecessary because she has no other Apple gear. The correct thing to do when faced with this question is pry into what they need it for and what they’ve used in the past and tailor your response once you have more information.

A good principle in life is not to answer a question if you don’t have enough information to do so accurately.

In areas where there is so much brand-fawning1, people are terrible at providing useful recommendations. Whether it’s phones, computer operating systems, or cars, people will happily give advice that don’t satisfy any of the criteria I opened with.

Why would you recommend a Google Pixel to someone who has a Macbook Air, Watch, and a big-ass iCloud account? This person would be better with some type of iPhone unless you have more information that says otherwise.

In a similar vein, telling someone who thinks a package manager is another name for an Amazon warehouse to swap to Linux makes you a bad person. Your recommendation should be tailored to your audience. NixOS may be the greatest thing since sliced bread and your repo of dotfiles may have more GitHub stars than some galaxies but you are talking to someone without the same time and resources to develop the skills needed to look after Linux. FOSS operating systems are amazing because if anything goes wrong you can fix it yourself, but they are also terrible because if anything goes wrong you have to fix it yourself. It should be a legal requirement that if you want to convince a layperson to switch to a *nix derivative you must be at their beck and call to solve any problem they have with it in perpetuity.

Don’t Ignore Context Or Criteria

If requirements and context are provided and you decide to ignore it, I will nailgun your ears to the minute hand of a clock tower.

I asked friends for suggestions of a good beginner automatic watch because I didn’t want fitness tracking, notifications, or dealing with recharging and was told to get an Apple Watch. Why someone would do this I don’t know, my leading theory is something to do with microplastics in the food supply.

Personal Experience

Please don’t come up to me and, unprompted, tell me to use Schwarzkopf got2b Glued if you’ve never had a mohawk. I am very happy if you say “a YouTuber said this was the best hairspray for mohawks, is this true?” Because I can happily say it’s effective but overpriced compared to better options and with a strong scent that can be overwhelming. Now you are no longer providing a recommendation for something you don’t understand, but are learning something new.

In this vein, recommending things you don’t have experience with and have only heard about second- or third-hand is bad and potentially dangerous. You do not have enough unbiased knowledge to know that your suggestion meets the needs and are parroting something the recomendee would have found with a quick online search (something they have almost certainly already done).

Relevant Alternatives

Going back to the phone example, I always see the most ill-informed opinions from people who have either never experienced alternatives or have had extremely irrelevant experience which has confirmed their existing biases.

I will have no end of people who have only used iPhones tell me that they have the best cameras. For clearer low-light photography and better image pre-processing, the Google Pixel has won out for every generation where I’ve needed a new phone.2 That said, there are types of photography that the iPhone beats the competition in, so I won’t recomemnd a Pixel to someone embedded in the Apple ecosystem who mostly takes nice landscapes on their morning hikes3.

The flipside to not having any experience with alternatives is having irrelevant experience. I am guilty of the following myself:

“The iMac G3 I used in high school sucked compared to my new $3000 Windows gaming computer.”

I made an irrelevant comparison! The battered iMac G3 was purchased at the cheapest possible price and was already dated by the time I used it and I was comparing it to something I went hog wild specs for to get the highest frame rate in AAA’s latest release: Realistic Brown Texture And Lens Flare Shoot’em’up 7. You see the same with phone recommendations; borrowing your Mum’s refurbished Samsung Galaxy J5 and hating it compared to your iPhone 15 Pro Max Ultra doesn’t mean that iPhones are better than Samsungs. It just means you don’t have relevant experience with comparative devices.

Be Smart, Provide Caveats

We can’t expect to have used every alternative option for every potential purpose, but we can provide our own context and experiences, tell people where we lack information, and warn people of what we see as pitfalls with our own suggestion.

Your recommendation is a lot more valuable and trustworthy if you can look at it critically and show where it sucks.

A lot of friends are migrating away from Twitter because it’s a fucking trashfire and looking for recommendations. I prefer Mastodon because I use it for a lot of nerdy shit and have a decent community there. It’s not nearly as good for weird shitposting as Bluesky in my experience, and I haven’t used cohost before. I try and ask what people like from Twitter and then tailor my suggestion and also let them know where my knowledge gaps are on the subject.

You too should provide your contexts and caveats on recommendations regarding knowledge gaps and areas of experience or lack thereof. Tell the recommendee that they should get some other opinions on the areas where you’re fuzzy. Don’t assume they haven’t done the bare amount of personal research first.

Give useful recommendations.

Give considered recommendations.

Social media makes this harder because it incentivises short-form responses and aggressive side-taking, but fight back against this.

  1. Billion dollar companies don’t need simps. ↩︎

  2. The Apple marketing has been super effective. ↩︎

  3. I aspire to be this person. ↩︎