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[2b2k] My world leader can beat up your world leader

There’s a knowingly ridiculous thread at Reddit at the moment: Which world leader would win if pitted against other leaders in a fight to the death.

The title is a straightline begging for punchlines. And it is a funny thread. Yet, I found it shockingly informative. The shock comes from realizing just how poorly informed I am.

My first reaction to the title was “Putin, duh!” That just shows you what I know. From the thread I learned that Joseph Kabila (Congo) and Boyko Borisov (Bulgaria) would kick Putin’s ass. Not to mention that Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Bhutan), who would win on good looks.

Now, when I say that this thread is “shockingly informative,” I don’t mean that it gives sufficient or even relevant information about the leaders it discusses. After all, it focuses on their personal combat skills. Rather, it is an interesting example of the haphazard way information spreads when that spreading is participatory. So, we are unlikely to have sent around the Wikipedia article on Kabila or Borisov simply because we all should know about the people leading the nations of the world. Further, while there is more information about world leaders available than ever in human history, it is distributed across a huge mass of content from which we are free to pick and choose. That’s disappointing at the least and disastrous at its worst.

On the other hand, information is now passed around if it is made interesting, sometimes in jokey, demeaning ways, like an article that steers us toward beefcake (although the president of Ireland does make it up quite high in the Reddit thread). The information that gets propagated through this system is thus spotty and incomplete. It only becomes an occasion for serendipity if it is interesting, not simply because it’s worthwhile. But even jokey, demeaning posts can and should have links for those whose interest is piqued.

So, two unspectacular conclusions.

First, in our despair over the diminishing of a shared knowledge-base of important information, we should not ignore the off-kilter ways in which some worthwhile information does actually propagate through the system. Indeed, it is a system designed to propagate that which is off-kilter enough to be interesting. Not all of that “news,” however, is about water-skiing cats. Just most.

Second, we need to continue to have the discussion about whether there is in fact a shared news/knowledge-base that can be gathered and disseminated, whether there ever was, whether our populations ever actually came close to living up to that ideal, the price we paid for having a canon of news and knowledge, and whether the networking of knowledge opens up any positive possibilities for dealing with news and knowledge at scale. For example, perhaps a network is well-informed if it has experts on hand who can explain events at depth (and in interesting ways) on demand, rather than assuming that everyone has to be a little bit expert at everything.

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[2b2k] Ethanz on linguistic isolation

Ethan Zuckerman asks a simple question — is there a correlation between how many outside news sources the people in a country consult and whether those people’s language is spoken mainly in their own country? — and leads us through the quantifiable maze looking for an answer.

Ethan defines “linguistic isolation” as “how well does the dominant language of your nation affect your ability to engage with information produced in other countries?” Using data from Worldmapper, and after some careful discussion of the limitations of that data (e.g., he only considers first languages, which obviously skews results for countries where many residents speak a second language, especially since one would expect (note: I am data-free!) that in many linguistically isolated countries there is a premium on learning a second, more globally popular language), he concludes:

…looking at data from 31 countries, there’s some correlation (R2=0.38) between linguistic isolation and low international readership. But there are exceptions – Argentina and Chile both have very low isolation scores, but they don’t read a lot of Mexican or Spanish news… or even each other’s news. South Africans show high linguistic isolation (languages like Zulu and Afrikaans aren’t widely spoken outside South Africa), but read a lot of international media in English, though it’s a minority language. I’m looking forward to examining a larger set of media consumption data and trying this linguistic isolation score alongside other factors, like total population (small nations might read larger nations’ news) and migrant population (the desire to read news from home.)

I’m not a quant (obviously), but I like watching people who are when they are asking fascinating questions, and when they teach as clearly as Ethan does.

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