Eli Dourado

What are your statistically improbable characteristics?

On social networking sites such as Facebook, users are asked to list on their profiles their favorite books, TV shows, bands, movies, and so on. One can cynically view this as an opportunity for people to signal how cool they are, but let’s suspend our cynicism and posit that the purpose of this exercise is actually to allow users to get to know each other a little bit. One problem with this approach is that some books, shows, bands, and movies are so popular in particular demographics that they provide very little information about the person supplying the preferences.

In another context, Amazon has the right idea. On many of the books listed on Amazon.com (the ones of which you can “look inside”), you can see a list of Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs). Here is an example. These SIPs are not so informative that they obviate the need to read the book, but they are certainly more informative than “most common phrases” or “random phrases.”

I wonder if something similar could be done for social networking profiles. Instead of listing your favorite books, profiles should list the books that you like that are surprising or statistically improbable for your age, gender, SES, and IQ. This would allow people to connect much more meaningfully than current profiles do. It usually takes months or years of close friendship to learn about people’s quirks. But if your Statistically Improbable Characteristics (SICs) were available for all to see, it might be possible to form serious relationships online more easily.

How could SICs be determined? This is likely (literally) a billion dollar question. It’s obviously not possible for people to accurately and on a widespread basis self-report their SICs. There would be a serious temptation to signal coolness instead of telling the truth, and in any case, I doubt that people are aware of their SICs. Maybe some sort of browser plugin/phone app/set top box/bank account combination could provide data suitable for mining for this purpose.

Even if the technological problem could be solved, I wonder if people would be comfortable publicizing their SICs. We spend so much effort trying to fit in. Would we really allow our friends to see how weird we are? I’d like to live in a world in which we would, but I’m just not sure that’s reality for most of us. But maybe if everyone else was doing it…