Thursday, November 18, 2010

Introducing the "Cite Your Source" button

Dear Following Few—

I made a web badge! Take the following HTML and plop it in a blog or other webpage—pass along the fact-checking goodness.

Monday, November 15, 2010

That R-pentomino Is So Hot Right Now

Why virality might a real-life application of the least competitive game in the world.

Ars Technica's Casey Johnson wrote a stellar article about game theory being a more apt explanation of viral media than actual virology. The article points out that the epidemiological approach "is fitting for some cases, in others it's an oversimplification—a person's exposure to a trend doesn't always guarantee they will adopt it and pass it on." Essentially, this is the beginning of the explanation for why websites and gadgets succeed, while other, similarly featured ones fail.

The researchers from the AT article ran a couple of models based on game theory principles. The first assumed that likelihood that a new computer application would be adopted by any given person was directly proportional to the number of friends in said person's network that adopted, and that knowledge of friends' adoption or non-adoption was 100%. This doesn't explain much—it creates a world with an infinite barrier to entry, but a preternatural tendency to growth. The second model denied absolute knowledge of friends' choices, and added a "try-it-out" rule: 100% adoption for nodes that had 0% knowledge of friends' tastes.

This was starting to sound a little like Life. Not the cereal, nor the Zen police procedural, but the game. John Conway's Game of Life is a zero-player game. I seriously won't attempt to beat Wikipedia at explaining it (skim it now, then come back), but suffice it to say that outcomes are both: absolutely predictable by machines who know the rules and can compute them on the fly, and terribly unpredictable and surprising to those who don't know or can't, you know, do several hundred computations in a few milliseconds. Patterns that seem small and silly may spread for generations and generations, and intricate designs might collapse in just a few. (Play Life here.)

It's that unpredictable propagation that makes Life interesting. And while the rules of the game are surely different from the much more complex rules of social marketing, it stands to reason that a few things are similar: it's more important who knows about your product/website than how many of them there are to start off with. If people that people trust (read that phrase again) know about your content, so much the better. But if the social networks of your early adopters can serve to propagate your message to other widely-trusted individuals, sounds like you have a really solid start.

There are HUGE amounts of conjecture in this one little post. We of course have no clue what the rules to the idea-passing mechanism are, how to determine who the starters for your viral marketing plan are, or what "special sauce" makes an idea likely to be passed. Memetics has largely failed in this regard; future research is desperately needed here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Conflictinator Alert - Veterans Day 2010

al-Google Veterans Day

So, here's a tempest in a teapot: Associated Content post about Google's Veterans Day logo that claims that the 'e' is actually a crescent of Islam. I'm not sure exactly where this ends, but it's possible the author actually believes the letter 'e' is a secret Muslim. Just to be safe, let's add everyone with an 'e' in their names to the No-Fly List.

Of course, when you bait the conflictinator trolls, they inevitably bite. HuffPo's response, of course, is to run with the AC author and claim that there's a widespread backlash about the logo. In their crazy, polarized view of the universe (perhaps fostered by spending too much time on the internet), the extreme right is one step away from besieging Mountain View with assault rifles, and maybe swastikas.

Way to contribute, guys.

All the President's Tax Cuts

Speaking of HuffPo, here's the title: White House Gives In On Tax Cuts. Here's the article (warning: contains serious hedging and low semantic density). Finding David Axelrod's statement that the president actually favors the extension of the tax cuts is hard, but finding anything that sounds like actually "giving in" is like playing Where's Waldo—with a Jackson Pollock painting.

Of course the Atlantic and a few other outlets took this, and ran with a "Obama gives in" type story.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The "Cite Your Source" Project

A little experiment.

As you might have been able to tell, I've been having difficulty finding time to blog this last week or so. (I'm working on other writing projects right now.) I've been thinking about The Problem of Information a lot, and I think I've come up with a short follow-up. It's a little social experiment, and I think it will be interesting to see if it catches on.

We all participate in online communities, whether it be in the comments section of a news website or blog, Twitter, or just on Facebook. A lot of our arguments work like discussion on major news outlets, including the citing of statistics and other supporting evidence without citing our sources.

As you well know, these stats are not necessarily true, but by in large those who agree (and many who disagree) with the point being made never question the factuality of this data.

I propose that we start. Right now. I know it will definitely make you annoying to people, but I would like to encourage everyone here to respond, at least once, to an online claim made without citing a valid source of evidence, with a polite request for citation.

It would be as simple as: "That's an interesting figure. Would you mind telling me where I can go to verify it?" or "I'm not saying I disagree with your point, but I'd like to know how I can verify that fact." You don't have to be outright contentious about it. In fact, it's probably better if you're not. People don't like having their comment or FB post ripped apart.

If everyone started requesting citation of valid sources even a few times a week, it would go a long way toward a healthier data culture. Thanks.

PS: This page will give you a web badge you can post if you like.