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.

Tough Business – How Social Networks Change Personality

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The first title that I made up for this post was "Developers and Socialization". I know this is not what I want to write about. I want to write about a larger issue, not limited to software developers only – it’s just that thinking about the behavior of software developers brought it to my mind. So here goes.

I wonder how the world is going to change with the increased popularity of online communities, collaboration tools and social networks. Is it going to open people up to contacts with strangers? Or is it going to make loners even more scared of personal contact? I’ve been thinking about this and still can’t answer the question for myself.

I probably lean toward the former answer. The latter might even sound absurd to some of you – after all, the main purpose these networks were invented is to bring people together. But I have a perception of psychology different than the one that you read about in textbooks and mainstream magazines or journals. I think everyone is different and behaves as an introvert or extrovert, depending on different factors.

I read an article by Matt Berseth the other day, discussing whether it is OK to perform Google background checks for new employees. The question for me is different – what does the background check give you? Are people with a visible online presence extroverts in "real life"? Are people who do not appear in search results nerds who stay in front of the computer all day? No, of course, it’s individual. Here’s where software developers come in the picture.

I am a software developer. I feel uncomfortable when people have a prejudice towards software developers. A friend of mine, also a developer, never says what he does when meeting someone new, especially a girl. The reason – most people immediately change their attitude. They think you’re that geek that curses Windows every time, or uses strange word like c++, blog, java, framework. I do tell the truth every time, ready to bear the consequences.

These prejudices are not accidental. There is a reason people have them towards geeks, and the reason is geeks are weird. This weirdness comes from the fact that they simply can’t feel comfortable talking to strangers for the first time. This is the only reason and it comes naturally. They can’t break the ice, they are not pro-active. This is why I think that online communities would rather open people up for new contacts rather provide the needed social element online and scare them away from real personal interaction. They provide the first step. They connect people, and it’s always easier for geeks to talk and get to know someone online, rather than personally. After all they are in their own domain in this case.

I’m not seeing this happening yet, and this is why I was wondering about it. I have examples of really active Facebook members who can’t say a word to a stranger asking their name in reality. And yet I hope this would change. ReadWriteWeb have a nice article about quantitative implications of modern social networks. Let’s see what these numbers will look like in the next year or two. What do you think?