Find a companion for whatever you wish. How the Internet makes probable coincidences inevitable ones.

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Cover of Back to the Future

In early October 2012, the mother of seven-year-old Muscovite Seva Bezrukov posted a newspaper classified ad asking the owner of a DeLorean DMC-12 to get in touch. It was precisely this car that was used in “Back to the Future”, a film that Seva is obsessed with. His mother asked whether the owner of said car would be willing to visit Seva on his birthday and make his dream come true: let him drive in the time machine.
The Viral Editor liked the ad and shared it hundreds of times over. Businessman Oleg Karpov, owner of this model of car, agreed it was a deed worth doing and drove the 400 kilometres from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow on the boy’s birthday. As usually happens in such cases, the story prompted some deep emotions. The tale of how the Internet made child’s dreams come true even ended up on the wires.
There are many such stories and they are getting increasingly common. Unknown people in an old photograph are located, a lost passport is returned. Thanks to the Internet, coincidences involving people and ideas that were previously thought to be impossible now occur all the time.
Sometimes you can’t help but notice a status update on Facebook: “I finish work at seven. Who wants a coffee in town?” If he or she has enough friends, the person asking will certainly find a companion. Thus coincidences are taking shape before our very eyes. With sufficient friends viewing a newsfeed, someone will certainly be in the same place at the same time, someone who jumps at the suggestion to meet up. As long as certain conditions are met, these probable web coincidences become inevitable ones. What are these conditions?

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Cover of "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity a...

Cover via Amazon

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky discusses the effectiveness of the service PickupPal. This is a portal that caters to the idea of ridesharing: if a person needs to go downtown on a Friday at 11:00 he posts a request and a special service matches him with other requests from people who are going in pretty much the same direction at around the same time. The travellers are united, the passenger paying towards the cost of petrol and the driver driving, and as a result there are fewer cars on the roads, easing the strain on nature, and everyone’s happy (except the bus companies, but that’s a whole other story).
Clay Shirky argues that if only one in three of your requests succeed, you won’t use the service again. But when nine out of ten requests succeed, the service becomes a reliable infrastructure, one that guarantees you’ll get a ride (or the companion who pays for petrol).
At what point does the probability of a successful travelling union reach 9/10? When the network has maximum coverage of a multitude of probable travellers. The quantity of users becomes a qualitatively new entity – a real body of social interactions, perhaps even the most important organisational instrument for people’s joint transportation. And the more frequently coincidences occur, the more people join in the service and the more frequently they use it. This in turn increases the probability of people’s interests coinciding and results in a new social interaction.
It’s worth emphasising that here we’re talking not about Internet chatter, which is how we often perceive the Internet, but real social interaction that is arranged online but implemented offline.
Of course, what underlies PickupPal is a useful service, an algorithm that selects options and a thematically united community (as well as the activity of its users). But the main parameter of its efficiency is statistical coverage via a web consisting of the maximum possible number of potential interacting participants. This is when a quantity of users becomes a new quality of coordination between users.

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To characterise this transition from the probable to the inevitable, we can draw on the principle of the statistical inevitability of the probable:

When there is a large enough body of events, the “probable” becomes “inevitable”.

This conversion of virtual quantity into social quality is an extremely important characteristic of the Internet, one that results in many important outcomes.
The most important and most banal is that coverage matters. Not merely coverage, but some kind of threshold of coverage for the given subject and given society. The idea of a threshold of coverage can be understood as such: having accumulated a certain quantity of friends you will certainly find someone who is ready to drink coffee with you at a certain time and in a certain place. (Designers of social media should be interested in the mathematics behind this phenomenon).
From a statistical point of view there is nothing unusual about the principle of the statistical inevitability of the probable. A system with an open-ended number of configurations will inevitably result in some kind of likely state. For example, let’s take a billiards table free of friction or air currents: imagine you hit a ball so that it bounces but doesn’t go spinning in a single trajectory – the ball will sooner or later end up in one of the pockets. This is the case even if there’s only one pocket on the table.
This principle can play an important part in making predictions in systems with open-ended numbers of events. For example, following this principle, an act of terrorism using nuclear material is inevitable. Consequently, the authorities should be prepared not only to prevent such an act, but also to react to it.

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In the offline world, the principle of the statistical inevitability of the probable is levelled by the factor of time. Frequently, so much time is needed for a probable event to occur that the event remains merely probable.
But on the web everything changes. From a statistical point of view, interaction between participants is an event in itself. The quantity of participants and the speed of their interaction exceed all parameters imaginable in the physical world. But this is not simply a blind search for options in a computer hunting for coincidences. In addition to quantitative indicators, the qualitative selection of analogies – both artificial and natural – plays its part.
Artificial selection is the selection of friends in your social circle. We choose people with shared interests, increasing the chance of some kind of coincidence occurring in our adjoining personal worlds.
Natural selection is provided by the Viral Editor: a network of friends we have chosen ourselves and friends of friends select events according to participants’ interests, ensuring their “friendly” relevance and further increasing the probability that our interests and others’ interests (or plans) will coincide.
As a result:
a) the scope of the selection of alternatives increases thanks to the maximum number of correspondents with potentially shared interests being drawn into our network;
b) the probability of coincidences grows thanks to the high quality of contact relevance.
Finally, if my personal network is well enough selected and/or wide enough, any probable coincidence becomes inevitable. In Russia there are only two DeLorean cars. What was the probability that information about some kid’s desire to see this car would reach one of its owners? In a world without the Internet the probability would have been close to zero. But thanks to the Internet, friends of both DeLorean cars let them know that a woman was looking for a car like theirs to show her son on his birthday. The sharing threshold was surpassed, resulting in the probability of interaction reaching 100%. Both DeLorean owners responded, but one was abroad, the other showing up with his legendary car.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Extracted from: Human as media. The emancipation of authorship
Available on Amazon now.

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Categories: Future of journalism, Human as media book

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