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A Game Theory Lesson, Or A Treatise On My Desire To Win Stuff…

July 12th, 2009 · 10 Comments
Econ 101 · Game Theory · Sports

I wish I had a cartoon for the following, so drop me a line if you know of any. Anyway, from the “Economics is Everywhere” desk:

So it’s Sunday morning (well, afternoon I suppose. It’s Sunday, ok?) and I am catching up on my Twitter feed while watching the Red Sox game. I follow the Major League Baseball feed (@MLB in case you are curious), and at about 2pm @MLB tweets the following:

“30,000th follower will get a free cap of their favorite team. Almost there. Thanks to all of our great fans. We are just warming up here.”

Now, ponder this for a second. What would an economically-minded (or strategically minded, I suppose) person do? More interestingly, what would a bunch of economically-minded people do? Finally, what do you think actually happened?

You are probably not surprised that I did what an economically-minded (and nerdy) person would do- I immediately unfollowed @MLB and went to its Twitter page ( to see how many followers it had. 29,065. I figured that this was totally winnable, so my plan was to keep hitting refresh until the page said 29,999 followers. Obviously.

Before I continue, I want to remind you of a post I wrote a few weeks ago about the concept of coordination failure. (Coincidentally, also about baseball.) Now that you’ve been reminded, what do you think would happen in the above situation if the world were comprised of a bunch of economically-minded individuals?

Assuming of course that we all want a free hat (economists like to assume that people want anything if it’s free, which I suppose is true if you can always throw it away with no hassle or guilt…and if you’re not talking about dog poo or something), a bunch of econ nerds would sit around their computers like lesbian sheep* waiting for the number to reach 29,999. Unfortunately, since everyone is sitting around waiting, the number would never get to 29,999. To quote Twitter, #epicfail.

* I was told once that there was a scientist who was researching whether there was such a thing as lesbian sheep. I was also told that this was a hard question to answer because when a female sheep wants to have sex she just stands there and does nothing. I’m not sure why, but I expected sheep to be better at signalling.

What actually happened was this: The number rose at a rate of one follower every few seconds until it got to about 29,990. (This would imply that people were either not thinking strategically, already had enough hats, or hadn’t seen the posting about the prize.) Then activity slowed down noticeably. I noticed that a number of times I refreshed to see the number of followers actually decrease, which would imply that other people were doing exactly what I was doing. Then there was a huge increase in the follower activity once the number hit 29,999. (I actually only saw it hit 30,000, so I did not win the contest. Boo.)

I didn’t win a free hat, but I was pleased because I was very proud of people for figuring out how to game the system. I am now very curious as to whether @MLB anticipated this behavior when it announced the promotion. (The promotion seemed a little silly anyway, since why would you announce VIA TWITTER a contest to get new followers, in which case you are reaching exactly your non-target audience? It’s like that time when one of my professors gave a scolding about being late for class at the beginning of class and realized halfway through that that was not helpful.) If everyone tried to game the system, the promotion could have seriously backfired. (Imagine a situation where there is a stalemate and then people give up and forget before re-following @MLB. If that happened, the promotion would actually result in a decrease in the number of followers!) Also, as the designer of the contest, it’s worth thinking about who it makes sense to reward. Some loyal followers apparently pointed this out. From @MLB:

“And to answer all messages about rewarding ‘old, loyal followers’ (ha)…we will think up some Twitterish contest giveaways. Ideas welcomed.”

I am pondering whether to give them some friendly advice on strategy…in 140 characters or less. 🙂

Tags: Econ 101 · Game Theory · Sports

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tony // Jul 12, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Do you suppose that anyone thought to get a friend (or a group of friends) to jump in on this scam?

    Suppose that your group size is 5. When the number hit 29,995, you could all register at once, and you’d win the hat.

    All you would need is some really good friends who thought it was cool that you won a hat… OR some suckers who would go along with whatever you told them to do.

    Then again, that might not be much of an incentive…

    Here’s a better idea… how hard is it to get a Twitter account? If it’s not so hard, just set up 4 additional Twitter accounts, and then follow when it hits 29,995.

    Maybe that’s why it slowed down so early, and maybe that’s why you never saw it hit 29,999.

  • 2 sharath // Jul 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Nice post !

    Just wonder if you can induce people into following this:

    When you got to 29990, you can decide to follow and soon after unfollow. In this interval at least a handful get anxious out there senses movement and decides to follow, so that by the time you unfollow its 29993.

  • 3 Steve M. // Jul 12, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Well, it was excellent marketing. A bunch of people sat around plotting to win a MLB licensed hat, thinking about baseball and baseball-themed hats the entire time. And even more people, some of whom, presumably, don’t like baseball at all, are thinking about baseball and baseball-themed hats as a result of this post.

    Speaking of which, I need to get a baseball-themed hat ….

  • 4 Shanti Pothapragada // Jul 13, 2009 at 4:59 am

    It’s interesting how classical economics training completely fails to teach us marketing. Seems like this could backfire, but of course it didn’t. They got a bunch of new followers.

  • 5 Dan L // Jul 13, 2009 at 9:30 am

    So if people who wait in line for free ice cream are irrational, what does that make people who sit around tracking the number of MLB Twitter followers for a tiny chance to win a lousy hat?

  • 6 BradyDale // Jul 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Well, the method of advertising it must have worked because they got to 30K, right? Afterall, you have to remember that lots of MLB nuts probably posted: RT: @MLB – 30,000th follower gets a free hat!
    Plus, you don’t have to follow to see their page unless it’s protected, and I’m guessing it’s not. Soooooo, the system worked. Twitter celebs do that kind of thing all the time.

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