India Uncut

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Indian Idol, and The Wisdom of Crowds

The final episode of Indian Idol was good fun, with Amit Sana and Abhijeet Sawant both singing beautifully. Sana had come second in the last round, and I'd speculated in a previous post that his fans would be more motivated to vote than Sawant's, because they'd be eager to catch up, while Sawant's could get complacent. I'd also written that Sana's rumoured throat infection might actually help mobilise his base further. In the event, there didn't seem to be much wrong with his throat, and his performance was wonderful.

Sawant is a complete package, tall and good-looking in addition to being a fine singer, and his voice has both both clarity and depth. But Sana is better at the harkats, the little embellishments and improvisations that a singer adds to the songs. This was most evident in the third song that they sang. Both were given the same song to sing, an original number created specially for the occasion. It was a mediocre composition and a terribly boring song, but Sana added all kinds of delicate harkats to it, and ended with a wonderful scat that indicates that he can sing a lot more than playback. Sawant didn't add so many harkats, but he made it sound more energetic and fresh that Sana had.

The judges seemed to favour Sana a bit, showering him with praise and giving him a standing ovation, but in my book, whoever wins deserves it, and whoever loses out nevertheless has a fine career ahead. Indian Idol may have begun with the intention of creating one big star, but it has actually given birth to quite a few of them – Sawant, Sana, Rahul Saxena, Rahul Vaidya, Prajakta Shukre and Aditi Paul all have wonderful careers ahead, and their market price per live show must already be in the lakhs. I don't know how restrictive Sony's contract with the winner will be, but the runner-up might actually end up making more money than him in the medium term.

Crowds v Experts: Avinash Tadimalla and I have had an interesting email conversation regarding Indian Idol and The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki's wonderful book that posits that group decisions are often better than those of individual experts. We came to the conclusion that the phenomenon Suroweicki describes isn't applicable to Indian Idol for two reasons.

One, the conclusion is subjective and not objective, so we can hardly determine if the crowds got it 'right'. Two, one of the conditions Suroweicki mentions for crowds to come to a good decision isn't neccessarily present here: diversity. By that, I don't mean that the voters aren't diverse, but that the spread of that diversity may be uneven or skewed. There's no way to measure that, and there are too many factors in play to be able to judge which way the audience will turn, and if they would make a correct decision if an objective one was possible.

So here's a question: if the Indian cricket team was selected by the people, via SMS, would it be better than the one selected by selectors? (It would certainly generate a lot of revenue.) My answer is that it wouldn't (because most of the voters wouldn't have enough reliable information about upcoming players on the domestic circuit), but if you read Suroweicki's book, I think you'll agree that the question isn't as outrageous as it sounds.
amit varma, 11:29 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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