Survivorship Bias and Its Cousins in Social Networking

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I was reading somewhere about survivorship bias recently. It strikes me when I think about it, how often it is out there, in the articles you read, the statistics you view and in any written material that you rely on for information. The easiest way to avoid it would be to have doubt in anything you read, any author, no matter how credible and unbiased he may seem; no matter how hard he worked to win your trust. If you ask Jeff, that’s the way to go – be inquisitive and reinvent the wheel, think through every piece of information that is presented to you. But this is not the point.

The point is, every content provider, news agency or service you are using is entitled to bring you unbiased information. How often this happens in reality, you tell me. I think it takes time for one to actually understand that survivorship bias is everywhere. Our society, our culture is such that we always pay attention to successful people, and try to avoid failures.

Take shelfari.com. It is a site brining social networking into the world of reading. People add books to their shelf, review them, rate them and answer to questions other people have about books. I’ve been a member for a while, and looking at my shelf, there’s no book with a bad review, no book I don’t like. Unconsciously, I’ve been adding only the books that I was impressed by, skipping everything else. Everything in my profile is biased. You cannot call it survivorship bias in this case, but maybe something like good impression bias. Same thing.

And when I think about it, it is normal for me to do this. I don’t remember the books I didn’t like. If I started using shelfari when I started reading and added each book as I finished it, it might be a different story. But the thing is, most social networking tools we use have been out there for a very short time. Does that mean all the information in them is biased? Yes. Does that mean we should care about it? Probably not. A social network in itself is subjective. It relates to one’s personal story and friends and does not serve as an institution providing opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if most people on Facebook took every piece of information that is shared for granted; I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelfari reviews are taken seriously; I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter messages are considered news, although they might be completely untrue.

All I’m saying is – we should be wary. It is our nature to trust someone who is talking to us, but if we want unbiased information, we should look somewhere else, not in social networks.