Archive for May, 2010

Sir, if you would be so kind...

Nearly 30 years ago I stood outside the public library in Olympia, Washington with a sheet of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other. I stepped nervously toward anyone who came near me. “Excuse me, I have a few questions about the Falklands War and…” the last few words spoken to their backs as they walked away. I was an introverted kid with an extroverted school assignment. I needed 40 people to take my survey, but after 45 minutes I had only 3. So in the end, I sat down on the sidewalk as the sun dropped behind the Black Hills and made up 37 people. Some of these imaginary people had strong opinions about the Falklands War. Others were not sure. Conveniently for my research, their responses spanned the complete range of available choices.

I did not tell this story to my 14-year-old as he went off this weekend first to Costco, and then to Trader Joe’s. He needed 100 people to take his survey and he was willing to talk to complete strangers to get it done. He also talked to neighbors and called everyone on his mother’s cell phone list. But after all this, he was still only halfway done. So in the end, he sat down at the computer and created an online survey.

Before long, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, he had more than enough responses to finish the assignment. Conveniently for his research, these responses spanned the complete range of available choices. And these were real responses from real people across the United States and Canada. For the latter, he added metric equivalents to the questions about mileage (now if only I knew the metric equivalent for the word mileage).

The online results confirmed things we already know about social media: That the average Tweeter is 25-50 years old; that social media brings people together from across geographical and political boundaries; and that people are, by nature, actually very helpful. 

Best of all, sharing an online survey is faster and easier than making people up. So maybe I should go back and find out what people really think about the Falklands War.


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Dirty Face

I met a man who will not wash his face. He has given it up the way other people give up cigarettes. We met at a friend’s wedding reception in Arizona, sitting under the stars by a small fire. He explained that in Latin America people don’t wash their faces much and they do okay. I can’t remember his reason. Maybe he realized that soaps are made with fat, and he didn’t want to rub fat around his vegetarian mouth. Or maybe, at first, he was just lazy. In the old days, when he used to wash his face, he had pimples. Now, he told me, his skin is always clear and healthy. He has not washed his face in years.

I often think about the man who will not wash his face. His daring rebellion against hygiene. And I often wish, standing in front of the mirror with a bit of soap in one hand, that I had met him earlier. When it was light.

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