December 16, 2009

Will the internet make us less obsessed with trivia, rather than more?

When information becomes cheaper to search out and gain access to, people will consume more of it. So there's a natural concern that the internet will drive us toward greater obsessiveness -- information is so cheap that we consume so much, long after we've hit diminishing returns. We end up scarfing down trivia, day in and day out, that would've been too expensive to learn about before the internet. For some types of information, this is certainly true, as I argued before about news being the new sugar.

But there are other, perhaps larger, parts of our trivia consumption that we use in contests against other consumers of trivia. For example, you might want to learn a lot of trivia about a football player because one of your hobbies is competing against other football fans to see who knows the most. I think this is behind the proliferation of contemporary music genres: the people who invent and use these obscure labels (folktronica, psychobilly, dark wave, cumbiaton, etc.) are competing against each other to see who is familiar with the most obscure types of music:

Yeah yeah, who hasn't heard of The Ramones and Prince -- but do you know who Shpongle is? No? Oh... I mean, no, nothing wrong with that. I guess I just thought you were knowledgeable enough to have been exposed to psybient music before...

(Actually, maybe that's too optimistic. Most 23 year-old music dorks couldn't recognize Queen or even some of the older but accomplished "indie" groups like The Jesus and Mary Chain. Their contest is not based on who has the most cumulative knowledge, but who has the most obscure knowledge.)

It's the same with sports fans: they take it for granted that they know which team won last year's World Series, or even every World Series, but do you know which bone the winning pitcher broke during his second season of Little League in 1985, and what swear word his coach infamously wrote on his cast? (I'm making that up, but it sounds real enough.)

How much of this competitive kind of trivia you have to master in order to win -- or at least rank in the top 1%, say -- is clearly related to how many others you're competing against. If the only way you have to signal your trivia mastery is through face-to-face meetings with people from your city or region, you need to have a fair amount under your belt. But once you're competing against people from across the country, or even across the entire world, that won't cut it. Welcome to the big leagues of pointless factoids. Now you've got to invest far more time, energy, and money into your hobby in order to maintain your rank from your local-only days. In contrast to exchanging trivia over a poker game with your buddies from work, think of how much more difficult it is to stand out on an internet bulletin board with sports geeks from all over the globe.

This makes the future look even more depressing than we'd expect from the non-contest consumption of trivia -- now you've got to obsess over it even more because your competitors in the arms race are suddenly much tougher! But that overlooks a key difference between contests and arms races -- you can exit a contest and not suffer. In an arms race, you have no choice but to compete, unless you want to vanish. Why would people start to drop out of these contests? One simple reason is if the costs of participating go up, and this is surely true when you're competing on a larger scale because you're more likely to meet tough opponents. So the internet may actually cause lots of obsessives to drop out.

Even more importantly, they will not just drop out of the particular contest they'd been competing in before -- if they left the indie rock trivia contest for the foreign film trivia contest, the same dynamics will be at work and they'll find that too costly as well. Instead, they'll drop out of trivia contests altogether -- it's just too demanding to be a world-class obsessive, so you might as well find another hobby. It's just like all workers in agriculture having to find new jobs in entirely different industries once the Industrial Revolution arrives. You're not merely shifting from one agricultural sector to another, but abandoning the ship of agriculture entirely.

Other hobbies whose contests don't scale up so easily do not face this prospect. Take amateur cabinet-makers -- they compete against others in their city or perhaps state, not the world. So their hobby is pretty safe. But any hobby that is mostly based on collecting and sending information is doomed. Only those with more-or-less vertical demand curves will be left -- that is, those who are so hardcore that no matter how costly it becomes to compete, they're going to stick it out. This will increase the variance or level of inequality, as most people drop out or never were competing anyway, while a small group travels farther and farther into the extremes of obsessiveness. Again think of the transition from agriculture to industry: before, people weren't so different in their ability to farm, but now most people don't know how to farm at all, while the remaining farmers know even more and have even better machinery than the farmers of yesteryear.

Is there a way to test this? We'd want to see a group of trivia competitors start out not too different but then see their numbers plummet as costs rose, as well as the remaining people becoming even more devoted to their obsession. My impression is that more people considered themselves music or movie or lit buffs before the internet became common -- say, the cashier at a used record store or an indie movie rental store or used book store. Within their city or state, they probably ranked pretty high and thought a lot of their trivia mastery. But when they go online and see how mediocre they are compared to the music and movie and lit dorks from across the country or the world, they realize they can't hack it and pour less into their hobby on music or movie or lit trivia, and look for a hobby that doesn't put them in competition with the entire world, and so where they can attain a higher rank and peer esteem given the same investment of time, effort, and money.

Certainly those who 20 to 25 years ago would've been competing on trivia about college radio bands or Polish film or edgy postmodern fiction are now more likely to take up hands-on, DIY hobbies like fixing bikes, knitting, or growing organic squash. I don't bump into many actual or potential sports fans, but I'd suspect that many who would've been sabermetricians a couple decades ago have in the internet age settled on hobbies that don't involve trivia at all.


  1. How about enjoying the journey? I, for example, spend ridiculous amounts of time in wikipedia learning about stuff. Some days it may be history, other days sports. I'm not preparing to compete against the world, just enjoying the journey. I may drop some comment at a dinner table of, say, 6 people and come across as knowledgeable, but that's about it.

    Or to use a more general example: of the millions of people playing Guitar hero or Rock Band, how many are competing against themselves or their 4-6 friends and how many are competing against the kid with the record posted on youtube?

  2. I kind of feel the opposite. Why bother memorizing how many homeruns Zoilo Versalles hit in his 1965 MVP season if that information is only a mouseclick away at Baseball Reference?

  3. I think personal enjoyment and impressiveness elements are both at work here. we'll still see sports lovers who just collect the information passively, from having watched the games, and culture-vultures who collect their info through consuming the underlying good.

    I doubt we'd see a decline in the number of sports buffs; you're still just competing with the other guys at the bar. My iPhone and the guy on the message boards are even more distant than the talking head on ESPN. I suppose music/film/lit buffs will suffer the same ESPN-like competition, but they will still mostly compete with other locals.

    Perhaps some of the buffs will choose more interactive activities and mix music or make videos or write poetry. But their own creations will seem insignificant compared to the works available on the internet. Being a top music/film/literature/sports buff is approaching the difficulty of being a top musician/actor/writer/athlete as both must now compete on the national stage. as the meta-knowledge about these activities also hits the national stage, the equilibrium may shift back toward the base activity.

    The other possibility is that the equilibrium could shift the other way: instead of just rattling off trivia, the records store clerk and the guy at the bar will need to synthesize multiple works in an original way. The internet is definitely causing a proliferation in statisticians and data miners, even though none of the amateurs could hold a candle to the papers in Econometrica.

  4. To measure this, what's the trend in College Bowl / NAQT participation levels?

  5. Certainly those who 20 to 25 years ago would've been competing on trivia about college radio bands or Polish film or edgy postmodern fiction are now more likely to take up hands-on, DIY hobbies like fixing bikes, knitting, or growing organic squash.

    Nah. Now they edit articles on Wikipedia.

  6. Interesting points over all, as usual.

    I don't think that sports fans are as "competitive" in the sense you talk about here, ironically. Ironic because, actually, sports fans are more openly competitive. They compile stats and factoids to prove why their own team or favorite player is actually the best. They openly proclaim their desire to out-argue you. Sports trivia may be a colossal waste of time and effort, but in my experience it's a lot more open-hearted and fun (even when people are screaming with their neck veins bulging) than all that indie-cred crap.

    Competitive factoid-tossing is fun when people don't get all high-and-mighty about it. Those indie music experts always strike me as the most joyless people around, unlike rabid sports fans who at least know how to cut loose and have a rip-roaring time (however moronic the latter appear to the former).


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."