I’m always looking for you — on my train ride to work, in cafes, in waiting rooms — but I don’t see you rustling a big colorful print version of FiveThirtyEight. If I did, I’d lean in close to examine your face or accidentally elbow you to strike up a conversation. I want to find you by accident, but now that screens give you a more discreet means of reading than paper, I can’t. See, I want to know that I’m not just writing about things that are of interest to me and people I know — so meeting you at some party through a friend of a friend just doesn’t cut it. It’s still too close to home.
Last May, I wondered if there might be another place I could meet you: my inbox. This is how I pitched the idea:
This is the first in a regular series called “Dear Mona,” where I’ll help readers to answer a fundamental, burning question: Where do I fit in the world? Or: Am I normal? I’m not a fan of advice columns in which the writer dispenses “you shoulds” based on her experience. Instead, I’ll offer data to contextualize your experience.
By asking you to email me questions that could be answered with data, I hoped I could surreptitiously find out who you are and what you care about. The sorts of things that, ironically enough, data on this site’s readership doesn’t really reveal. And boy were you revealing!
You came to me every day to tell me that you peed in the shower every morning, never used tampons and went to church every Sunday. After a while, I decided to expand the column beyond “am I normal?” to include all questions, although I have a cheeky suspicion that even when you were asking things like “how often should one change one’s socks?” you were still trying to compare yourself to others. Yes, yes, I know this “you” is a multitude — but identifying individuals within the sexless, ageless, faceless throng of “readers” was so important because suddenly, I didn’t have to imagine you anymore.
But, just as I’ve gotten to know you (it only took answering 47 “Dear Mona” questions and writing 199 other articles), I’ve decided to leave FiveThirtyEight. It has been nearly two years since Nate asked me to join the amazing team he was building here and it’s time for me to take the “Dear Mona” column and my awful British jokes elsewhere. Before I do, I’d like to offer an apology and a thank you.
For every question that was published, dozens went unanswered. When you wrote to me saying that you were going to propose to your girlfriend and wanted to know the probability she’d say yes, I couldn’t find any good data. I’m sorry for that. I was equally stumped when you asked me what percentage of text messages are sent while people are pooping or how often you should be eating quinoa.
Then there were the questions that were too daunting to answer. Should I have responded when you asked me, “Is it safer to walk, ride your bike, or drive home when drunk”? Could I possibly respond with the compassion and honesty you needed when you wrote: “I’m a tall, white, well-built man with a law degree and a six-figure job… but… I’d trade it all to be a lady. Am I normal?” When you told me you hadn’t told that to any friends or family, you reminded me what an incredible thing trust is and how privileged I was to have yours.
You showed me how data is imperfect and your personal experiences helped me fill in the “why”s that are so often missing in my work. You wrote to me to tell me when I’d done a good job, and, more importantly, to tell me when I hadn’t. Most of all, though, you gave me great ideas when I didn’t have any, so I owe a special thank you to:
Hope the numbers helped,