Monday, April 14, 2008

How many is a crowd?

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, it's hard to tell how many centenarians there are. There are several reasons for this, but paradoxically, one reason is that there aren't that many of them. As a result, it's difficult to make a generic statement like "There are N people in this county over 100 on Social Security," because N is liable to be 1 or 2, in which case you've just told the world that those particular people are on social security. One comes to value one's privacy as one grows older.

The same situation arises in tabulating election results in sparsely-populated areas. Announcing that six people in the county voted for candidate A and two voted for candidate B is somehow different from announcing six thousand and two thousand. Granted, in a county with eight voters, lack of anonymity kind of goes with the territory.

So at what point do we start to feel that aggregate results are comfortably anonymous? There's almost certainly no single point, and I'm being deliberately vague with "comfortably anonymous", but it's an interesting question. Discussion of web communities often revolves around social networks, in which anonymity is specifically not such a concern, or "megacommunities", which are big enough that aggregates are almost certainly comfortably anonymous.

But even on the web, if you slice out a small enough niche, the question can come up. If I hear that forty anonymous members of the left-handed Dutch-speaking pigeon fancier's society are in favor of some proposition, I may not have too much trouble figuring out who that is.

1 comment:

earl said...

Somewhere in the country there was a small community which always and invariably voted solid republican. Except that in every election one solitary democratic vote would show up. This was not important to the outcome of any election, but the citizenry at large found it mildy irritating, and a recurrent puzzle.
Folks knew it had to be old Dan McMurtry, a curmudgeon of the first water, never came to church, had the counterargument to whatever you might say. So when Dan died, the awaited the next election with a certain smugness.
When the votes were counted, there was one republican vote fewer than before, and a solitary democratic ballot.

"Damn!" said the mayor. "We buried the wrong man."