Asymmetry

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet an artist whose work I’ve followed and enjoyed for more than a decade. He’s brilliant, and he’s given me tremendous insights into the world over the years, as well as more than few Darmoks that I’ve been able to use with friends. In fact, I’ve even met new friends due to shared appreciation of his work, so you could definitely say he’s had an influence on my life.

The bulk of his work has been in serial comics, but he’s done tons of other stuff, from novelty items to sketch comedy to pop science publishing and even a new political book. Because of his sketch comedy, I’m not only familiar with his work, I know what he looks like, sounds like, etc. We’ve also interacted in a friendly way online a few times within the fan/creator dynamic, but that further pushed him into the part of my brain that registers “friend” rather than “public figure.”

And then this past weekend, I met him in person, in a format that was pretty casual and familiar. And I had this very strange moment of experience when I first went to shake his hand where I realized that he felt like an old friend to me, but I was more or less completely unknown to him.

To be honest, it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. It felt creepy, like I was a stalker. I knew so much more about him than he knew about me, but then we were just chatting about parenting and board games and stuff. I felt dishonest. Normally one of two things is true about another person. Either:

  1. You know roughly the same amount of information about each other in terms of volume, OR
  2. You don’t ever actually interact.

It’s one or the other. I know way more about Donald J. Trump than he knows about me, but we also never talk so it doesn’t matter. I talk to my wife all the time, but she knows about as much about me as I know about her so I don’t feel weird in our interactions. This was a new experience for me. I started to even use this idea as a conversation-starter, but even that felt creepy. Saying, “Isn’t it weird how you don’t know anything about me but I know so much stuff about you,” felt like a line from a horror movie. Thankfully there were lots of other things to talk about. Also thankfully, he was a super cool guy and really great to interact with, which lessened the awkwardness considerably.

The whole experience made me reflect on all the different levels of information asymmetry we encounter every day. How much more you might know about some subject than someone else. I think we mostly walk around thinking that human knowledge is spread pretty evenly, and that even expertise only represents a small increase over the norm. In reality, you probably have many orders of magnitude more knowledge than the median within a few areas, and virtually none in most others. It’s a yawning chasm, and it can give you some vertigo to look over the edge.

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