Monday, December 29, 2008

An Amazing Claim

You've probably encountered the challenge of the boy who tells his father that for each day of the month, starting with a penny, if the father gives him double what was paid the first day, the boy will never ask for money again. Anyone who does the 1-2-4-8-16-32-64 sequence and stops before reaching thirty days might agree to such a deal, not realizing that near the end, the sum will have reached a mammoth amount.

This is why I paused when someone showed me a webcomic creator announcing a million page views of their comic. Then, a month later, the same person publicly announced growth to two million page views, saying they didn't know who the people were bringing all that traffic.

I should hope not, because they don't exist. The gullibility of people who buy into false claims can be criticized, but when a person of prominence indulges in fictional claims, something more complicated is going on.

It's easy to double your readership when you have one reader. It's hardly overwhelming to go from ten to 20. But each doubling requires more strenuous effort: imagine doubling in the millions or billions. In a month.

Gaining a million in the space of a month is incredible growth: if a healthy comic averages around five pages* per visit, adding a million page views implies adding hundreds of thousands of visitors, something like 6700 per day.

If you raise the page view average, you can lower the number of new visitors required. By raising the count to 50 pages per new visitor, about 20,000 more are required. That would be an outstanding performance for any comic, though not unattainable. But the high page view number needed to allow this visitor reduction is unlikely, as any comic attracting thousands who will sift its archives for 45 minutes is certain to have a greater number of less ambitious guests who drag the average down.

We can consider a naive interpretation of a software error, but this person is surrounded by minds sound enough to detect it and advise.

It's been part of a long-running pattern, and the audience is mostly self-selected; the doubters have split.

Perhaps next month, we'll be at three million.

Credulous journalist colleagues, take note.

*A reasonable assumption based on observation. Use whatever number you think is appropriate.