Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Random Center and the Gossip App

I just spent more than an hour being fascinated with the story of a forthcoming app that encourages people to write down their opinions of other people. When you rate someone with this app you provide a numeric score which can be averaged together with everyone else’s opinion of that person. The app presents itself as a sort of social-media popularity contest in which, if you possess many of the virtues that make up popularity, you may strive to achieve the lofty goal of a 4 rating on a scale that goes from one to five.

It won’t work, though, and not just because the app strikes most people who hear about it as a terrible idea. The 4 rating a user is encouraged to strive for is out of reach because of the mathematics of social networking. If everyone’s opinion of you is considered equally, then your rating is determined by people who barely know who you are. These are people whose opinion of you is based on superficialities, hearsay, and having confused you with someone else. It is the people who barely know you, or who think they know something about you but perhaps don’t, who determine your rating simply because there are so many more acquaintances than friends. If you have 100 friends while 10,000 people have met you or heard about you, it is the larger group that matters when everything is averaged together. Obviously there is a high degree of noise and randomness in opinions that come from people who don’t really know the first thing about you, and random values tends to fall near the center on average. To consider this question, imagine how you might rate all the people you have met over the past year. It would be hard to form meaningful opinions. In most cases you have nothing to go on. You would mostly be guessing. With so much randomness it may be impossible for anyone to remove themselves from the random center far enough to be ranked as low as a 3 or as high as a 4 when the scores are averaged together.

There is a more fundamental reason why the new popularity contest app I spent so much time reading about won’t work. It is not really a popularity app. Even if the network is the mobile Internet, the medium is writing, and writers are also asked to provide a numeric score, what the app is fundamentally all about is talking about people who aren’t there. In other words, it is a gossip app at heart. One of the problems with gossip is that you can spend long periods of time immersed in it and come away with no information of practical value. After all, isn’t that what I just did? Gossip makes itself seem important, but when you realize how much time you are wasting, time you could have put toward an activity that would better your situation, the appeal fades. An app rooted in gossip will inevitably meet the same fate.