Preparing for the inevitable

October 30 2015

Many people express surprise when they are invited to write for the Listserve. Not me. I saw this coming. That’s why I added an entry to my to-do list long ago: “prepare an entry for the Listserve”. Of course, I never actually got around to doing it. My to-do list is mostly added to; it’s a list of things I want to have done, but don’t want to do right now. Arguably it’s a procrastination tool, and I might be better off without it.

So suffice it to say, I am unprepared. After all, what are the odds of winning the Listserve? That’s an interesting question, actually, and the answer is not what you think. The Listserve’s website claims over 23,200 subscribers. A daily chance of 1 in 23,000 amounts to winning about once every 63 years. I’ve only subscribed to this list for 306 days. The fact that I’m writing this message at all is a little suspicious.

Going by the creation date of the Twitter account, the Listserve was created 1284 days ago. Even taking into account the 978 winners before I joined the list, I am still quite lucky to win. In fact, the probability of that happening is about 1,39%. That’s nearly the top 1%! Am I really that lucky, or is there another explanation?

Estimating the chance to win the Listserve based on observed time between joining and winning is like trying to solve the German tank problem using a single data point. It’s hard (though using the official subscriber count as an upper bound may help), but let’s speculate anyway. What if the majority of subscribers never capitalize on the chance to send a message? Perhaps these people are too lazy to write, too busy, too boring, on vacation, or unable to access their mailbox. Perhaps they suffered an untimely death.

Whatever the reason, if only 1 in 3 winners do write, that means almost 3,000 people were eliminated when I joined the list, and my invitation was one of the next 900 or so. In that case, I’m lucky enough to be in the top 5%. Before I head off to the casino, let’s take this idea a little further.

What if only 1 in 10 winners actually write back, and the other 90% might as well not exist? In that case, I’m only among the first 23% active participants to receive my golden ticket. That’s still better than average, but sufficiently mundane to put my doubts to rest. I suspect that’s the untold secret of The Listserve: 9 out of 10 subscribers are ghosts.

There are two things to take away from this:

Most people who win the Listserve don’t write back (perhaps as many as 9 out of 10).
Consequently, your turn to write will come much sooner than you think (probably within the next year).

If you don’t want to be part of the silent majority, be prepared. After all, half the fun is in the writing. If you plan to write at all, why not start tonight?

- Maks.
[email protected]

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