Crowds are Wise – But not when it comes to Voting

In 1907 there was a very interesting article in the Nature magazine called Vox Populi (The voice of the people) written by Francis Galton. It starts with the following words:

In these democratic days, Any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgement is of interest. The material about to be discussed is a small matter but is much to the point

He went on to state (in a later comment) that the mean of all the guesses made by an 800 strong audience for the weight of a cow (or some such animal) was closer to the real weight than the weight guessed by a set of experts. He implied that that 800 non-experts may give you a more correct answer than a couple of experts. There have been plenty of experiments since that prove the wisdom of crowds but in one very important aspect I believe crowds have failed.

If ever man devised a system which so wholly depends on the wisdom of crowds it is democracy. Early democracy was very different to what we see today – in some senses it is closer to an Oligarchy – where there was a central group and there would be a vote on a number of issues. Only those above a certain age (always much greater than 18) would have a chance to vote. And even so there would always be a central structure (elite group, king(s)) who could quash legislations which were deemed not right. Ostensibly this elite group of decision makers were ‘learned’ men or at least experienced in whetever it is they did (science, society etc) and the king trusted their opinion. The common man – the peasant, the blue collar worker had no real voice at all. He/she was seen as uneducated (and in most cases they were) and incapable of understanding the complexities of the problems that needed solving.

Over time people started to see chinks in this method of governance . The disenfranchised sections of society started to feel their grievances being neglected. They all felt that they too were suitably qualified to take part in the governing process. So after much struggle, we came to the point – where we are now – where we have universal voting. Any human being who has the qualities of staying alive till the age of 18 can play his/her part in choosing who runs the country.

This brings us to the wisdom of crowds. Once you have a crowd so diverse, doesn’t there arise the question of bias? On the basis of mental capacity, upbringing, race, religion, understanding? People don’t vote for the candidate that they believe will govern them well any more. They vote either for personas or for pre-disposed political or social biases.

“I’m voting for him because I’ve always voted for Tories” (Is “he” any good? I don’t care.)

“I’ll vote for the BJP because I’m Hindu and they will do a better job of upholding my values” (Will BJP’s budgetary goals ruin your trading business?

“I’ll vote for Obama because he talks well”

Going back to the “Wisdom of crowds experiment”, think of a situation where the cow being weighed was co-owned by 50 of the 800 people stating the weight and they all knew that the weight would be decided based on what final value comes up as a mean of their guesses. I’m sure the 50 would have stated weights on the higher end thus making a mockery of the exercise.

The underlying question at a vote, I think, should be, which of these guys will manage and run a district/state/country the best. The people who are voting lose track of this question. They vote for people who don’t have a vision and if they have a vision they don’t have the tools to make it work. And no – corruption doesn’t cloud the idea of the democracy as much as badly informed voting in my opinion. In fact – some say that corruption could help democracies work better.

In Sparta, you had to be 30 years old and male to play a part in governance. I feel that 18 is too young an age to start playing a role. At 18 most people don’t have a wholistic idea about life. They have rarely ever worked and even if they have, they have a hollow education lasting only upto school.

On larger issues, like climate change, fracking, communal harmony, benefits and so on – can we expect an 18 year old kid or for that matter a grown adult with a mediocre intellect to make the enlightened choice to change the status quo? This becomes even more difficult and improbable if making such a choice for change has a direct and negative impact economically on the said person. A car mechanic, an oil worker, a rich taxpayer and a defence contractor  would all find it extremely hard to make a choice which would directly affect their livelihoods negatively however much good it might do for the nation or the world.

With that in mind, what is to stop our world from going the way of the Rapa Nui at Easter Island? I don’t think we can trust people who make choices based on bias, people who elect leaders who unabashedly lie to their country and take them to war, people who elect leaders who think it important to raise statues of themselves.

Churchill backs me up with this one “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But of course, Churchill himself was the first to state that democracy is the best system we’ve got.

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Not yet masters of our own planet

The US can go to Jupiter but they can’t get men out from some ice in Antarctica.

There is an article in this month’s National Geographic about a plane which crashed in the Antarctic in 1946.  They were claimed by some to be the last casualties of WW2 since this happened the day before Truman declared casualties over. Three men died in the crash of the plane which was on a mission to map Thurston – some random part of Antarctica.

1946 crash, three dead marked on the wing

The casualties are still where they were when the plane crashed – hundreds of feet of ice above them now. The issue now is that the glacier they crashed in is melting. The bodies will be washed into the sea in a few years when the glacier melts and the memory and the ‘grave’ will be lost forever.

How difficult is it to retrieve people from under ice as compared to going to Jupiter? Is it a case of this not being sexy enough to get funding?

Edit: After much snooping around I finally found a reference to this online here. It is a regular sensationalized American news report. You have been warned.

Is it time for Wikipedia to become a primary source of Information?

Philip Roth, author of the Human Stain, faced a weird situation recently. He wanted to make some changes to the Wikipedia article about his own book – which claimed the work was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” According to Philip, however, the work was inspired “rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.”

So, like any normal person, Philip went to the wiki page of the book to change the error about his own book and its inspiration. Surprisingly, the changes were declined with the following explanation from the Wikipedia admin:

“I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

 That is – Philip’s thoughts about his own book are not valid on Wikipedia unless the same thoughts were published elsewhere as being said by him (or someone else!).

So Philip wrote a long open letter  published in the New Yorker about this situation and the real inspiration behind his book. With this as a secondary source, the changes were made to the Wikipedia entry about his book.

Should Wikipedia, with its authority as the one of the top sources of information (or in some cases mis-information) start acknowledging the value of first hand entries about topics making Wikipedia a primary source of information? Should they follow the examples of Twitter and the like and have verified accounts for people who wish to write about topics for which they are the primary source?

Of course, this would open a whole new can of worms – since, for example, a politician might use this to carefully control what is written about him/her on the site. But Wikipedia is already quite a political organisation and many topics are locked to further addition of allegations and the like which might have (many) secondary sources.

What are your thoughts?

I came across this news story on Slashdot.

Virality and the Internet

I was wondering the other day about who the first used the word viral in the context of the internet and the spread of content. The Wikipedia page on Viral Marketing says the term was first coined by Tim Draper, a venture capitalist. This was in ’96 and the social network in question was probably email. From those humble beginnings, virality has turned into a multi-million dollar industry where success stories are measured by views, clicks and shares.

So what makes internet content go viral? Are there a set of common factors that can ensure the success of your video or tweet? Is there a silver bullet? Over the last few years a number of companies, researchers and phony social media gurus have tried to explain the phenomenon. But it is still difficult to replicate the success of one campaign directly in another.

A paper by Berger & Milkman [pdf] looks at an interesting link between the emotion generated by the content and the degree of social transmission, or the virality factor. Articles which generated emotions like awe, anxiety or anger tended to be more viral than content which generated emotions such as sadness.

This brings me to why I am bothering with this right now. I have taken up an unpaid job with mindfulmum.co.uk after I finished my MSc in Computing Science. Being a startup I get the chance to work in multiple areas – from advertising to web design and optimization. But my main job is to deal with the social outreach of the site.

So I have started with the basics. Its only been a few days and we are looking to improve the site layout in such a way that it is easier to share content. Now we are looking into starting a campaign on facebook with the goal of increasing the audience of the site’s content. There is a lot of hard work still to be done and a site redesign is still in the works. I’m now thinking of ideas to create a good viral application which can launch the social aspect of the site.

Well, its only been a few days.

Who is Ryan Aguillard?!

Try searching on Google for facebook.
The results are all as they should be – with the right sites at the very top.
All is well. Until you look closely.

Check the sub-links within the first result. What is that link below Login doing there?!

Ryan Aguillard.
It links to the  facebook internationalization page( http://www.facebook.com/index.php/Internationalization ) which redirects to my home page.

What is that doing there, Google?

Who is Ryan Aguillard?

A quick Google & facebook search yields no results. All the links are generic. The only links which seem promising are a forum post – with no replies by the way – asking the same question. Also, a link to a Huffington Post profile which looks unused.

Update 1:

Recently (Aug 20, 2010), Google announced that they will be showing increased number of results from each domain, if the search is focused enough on a single domain.

They said, “Today we’ve launched a change to our ranking algorithm that will make it much easier for users to find a large number of results from a single site. For queries that indicate a strong user interest in a particular domain, we’ll now show more results from the relevant site. We’re always reassessing our ranking and user interface, making hundreds of changes each year. We expect today’s improvement will help users find deeper results from a single site, while still providing diversity on the results page.”

The aberration that is Ryan Aguillard is probably a result of this new algorithm doing something stupid.

Update 2:

I received a huge spike in traffic yesterday on Aug 31st 2010.
It also seems the problem has been set straight on Sept 1st 2010.
I guess thats the end of that.