Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The tyranny of numbers

Yesterday India lost the first test of the current England Test series by 196 runs. Indian fans are of course disappointed, but there are three more games to go and they hope that India will claw its way back. Our team certainly has the ability to do so.


Anyway, the intent of this piece is not to talk about cricket. It is to talk about metrics. Metrics as in measurements, numbers, ratings, rankings, and how we are all slaves to them. The front page of the Mint newspaper has a photograph of Sachin Tendulkar with the following caption "Sachin Tendulkar missed out on his 100th international hundred as India faltered while trying to stave off defeat in the first Test against England at Lord's on Monday. The 196-run loss puts India's No. 1 Test ranking in jeopardy."  


What is more important in our scheme of things? The fact that it is after all a game and wins and losses are part of it? Or that it is a disappointing loss in a test match where we played badly and England played well? Or the fact that we are waiting for Sachin's hundredth international ton – what is his hundredth ton but a statistic, an eagerly awaited and welcome one of course, but a statistic nevertheless? Sachin made only 12 runs yesterday, it's not even that he got out in the 90's! Or is India's No.1 Test ranking more important?  A No. 1 ranking is a cumulative effect of many matches –maintaining the ranking is important, but is it more important than the game that just took place?


Also, the fact that it was the world's two thousandth test match, and the hundredth India-England test match, and Duncan Fletcher's 100th Test as coach, got a lot of mileage. The combination of all these important factors makes it a landmark test!


When it comes to measuring anything, there comes a point beyond which the focus is merely on the measurement; on the collection, compilation, collation, reporting and discussion of statistics. Everyone talks about these numbers, what they mean  and how significant they are. It is very likely that many of these numbers are converted to graphs and charts, preferably dual axis and in 3D. After some time, someone comes up with a metric indicating how many metrics there are. This is compared to another setup which tracks more metrics, of course followed by an effort to increase the number of metrics. The number of metrics itself becomes a metric and a target to be exceeded. Cricket of course lends itself to metrics generation much more than any other game, so it is not possible to compare cricket with other games. If it were, there would be comparisons, based on metrics of course, of how many and what kind of metrics cricket has in comparison to, say hockey, and there would be tomes and tomes of analysis on that. There would be consultancy organizations offering to take the learnings from cricket (meaning the metrics, not the game itself) and apply it to other games like hockey. There would be conferences with the theme "Metrics and their measurement, in pursuit of excellence" which would be attended by all the cricketers, presumably to improve their game.


And so on it will go… somewhere in this whole process, the fact that we are talking about cricket in the first place is forgotten. We focus on the numbers, create our own interpretation of them, bring them to life in different contexts, weave stories around them, and bask in the resultant insights. After some time, it ceases to matter whether it is cricket we are discussing or some other game.  It is reduced to a play of numbers, and in the process the spirit is lost! If it sounds familiar, it is t because the same thing happens in many other contexts as well.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The fight to take over the world

Google+ is creating quite a buzz. It is still in a restricted-user testing stage but it has created enough interest among the early users and it looks like it will have a good chance of challenging Facebook's dominance. It is almost a desperate final attempt by Google to enter into the social media space – a do or die effort. Its two previous efforts, Wave and Buzz failed, the first because no one could figure it out, and the second due to major privacy concerns. Google looks like it might get third time lucky.


The internet battlefield is littered with corpses of companies that were once healthy, growing, and thriving, but grew sickly and died away as quickly as they rose to prominence. In social media, MySpace is an example that comes to mind. And Orkut. All the people gravitated quickly to Facebook – beyond a certain tipping point, more people join Facebook and desert the other sites since more people are already on Facebook. Facebook has long ago exceeded that tipping point – half the world is on it now. The other half is of course excluded from the world – a bunch of weirdoes who don't belong.


Google is by far the most successful internet company making huge revenues and profits. And they have achieved this position in just a few years. A large proportion of searches (except in China) is through Google, and since so many people access the net through the Google gateway, the gatekeeper gets to profit from the traffic. In this case, the gatekeeper also acts as their guide for the journey ahead; he knows a few million paths they can take – with his omniscient wisdom and infinite sagacity he prioritizes the options and most people follow his advice. As they proceed they are greeted with banner advertisements that the gatekeeper places in their path, advertisements that are very relevant to the object of their search. What power! What influence! It comes closest to being God.


But God is getting jittery. His followers still ask him for advice on which path to take and they follow his advice. They still read the banners placed in their path. But they travel in groups, hang out in groups and spend a lot of time with each other – and the places they hang out in are not owned by this God. That privilege is Facebook's. As people interact more and more on Facebook , posting millions of pictures, having trillions of conversations, and interacting in tons of forums, Facebook gets a deeper and deeper insight into people – how they connect, what they say, what they are interested in – and gets to control the environment in which they spend a lot of their time. The aggregation of information from this has immense potential to profit the person who has it. And this new God knows it. He is already muscling into Google's mail space by getting more and more people to send message s to each other on Facebook. It won't be long before he offers them search options as well – and then Google is in real danger of going the MySpae or Orkut way. Nothing is more sad than a God whose followers have all deserted him. The world is littered with ruins of ancient temples which were once the center of their universe. And for Gods who measure their own worth in market cap, it can be even more heartbreaking.


So Google is trying to woo people away from the new God. The task is not easy since they have grown used to worshipping at the Facebook altar. It is very difficult to make them desert – anyone who tears himself away to come over to the altar of the new God, is faced with an unfamiliar terrain, new rituals, new ways of doing things, and is very very lonely at first. And like any new world, this world will take getting used to. After going through the trouble of understanding Facebook, figuring it out, and getting used to it, why would anyone want to switch? The early adopters also have to wait for the entire thing to catch on; it will take time till they get a feeling of real community.


This time the chances of success for Google to encourage apostates into its fold seem good. The concept of Circles that Google has introduced is intuitive, easy to understand, and addresses the issue of privacy upfront. Facebook does have its privacy settings, but it is so hidden that most people do not know how to use it and it is not so intuitive. You don't send "friend' requests – you just drag them into your circles. They do the same to you. In that sense, it is a combination of Twitter and Facebook. The "Hangout" where ten people can get into video chat at a time is a great feature. People see that there are other people "hanging out" on video chat and join the group. Very similar to what happens in real life interactions. The early adopters are liking what they see and they are creating a very positive buzz around the product.


Whether Google+ will succeed or not remains to be seen. The denouement will not be long in coming. If it succeeds, then it becomes much more powerful than it already is. Google already controls a lot of internet traffic of the world, and knows what people are looking for. If Google+ succeeds, it will also be eavesdropping in the places they hang out, and know more and more about them. Them in this case of course means us. In our lives Google will become more omniscient, more omnipotent, and more omnipresent than ever.  That is a scary thought.

P.S: Link to a poem on Google I wrote a couple of years back:   http://www.dineshgopalan.com/2011/05/google.html