As is my wont during the exam season, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed when I noticed numerous posts which said: ‘There’s a book exchange chain going on. I need six people of any age to participate in it. All you have to do is send one book and you will receive 36 in return. Let me know if you’re interested and I will PM you the information.’
As someone who loves reading, the entire scheme piqued my interest. But at the same time, it seemed way too good to be true. So I did what any sane person in such a situation would do, I carried out a Google search. Always remember, when in doubt, Google!
After a little googling, I found out that schemes of this sort are called pyramid schemes. I’ll try to illustrate how a pyramid scheme works. Let’s assume that you convince 6 of your friends to participate in the book exchange. For this to work, each of them will have to refer 6 friends. So 6 friends*6 referrals make 36 people. It is these 36 people who send you books. So far, so good. But now if all six of your friends are to receive their 36 books, 216 people would have to be involved in the next level of the pyramid. The number of people involved in each level of the pyramid keeps increasing since we’re dealing with a geometric progression.
1… 6… 36… 216… 1296… 7776… 46,656… 279,936… 1,679,616… 10,077,696… 60,466,176… 362,797,056… 2,176,782,336… 13,060,694,016
Try going fourteen levels deep and you’ll have already surpassed the entire human population on earth. But usually such pyramid schemes fizzle out long before they hit such numbers. One reason is that at some point, your circle of friends is going to overlap and get saturated. The second reason being that your scheme will quite simply run out of people who are interested in participating. At this point you might be thinking, ‘What’s the big deal? Even if I get just one book in return for the book that I send out, I’ll be happy.’ Let us take the best case scenario where you receive 36 books since you’re lucky enough to be on one of the first few levels of the pyramid. However at the end of the day, the people you refer could be the ones losing out. Stop and think for a moment. In reality, aren’t you cheating the people below you on the pyramid? The people who might end up receiving absolutely nothing at all? I don’t see how you people can raise the argument that this is harmless fun when you’re basically misleading people into participating in this chain by saying ‘buy one book, get 36 books in return.’
Let’s take the math a little further and assume that our chain propagates quite successfully and our pyramid becomes 8 layers deep, which is reasonable considering how the post has spread on Facebook, and let us assume that all the people in the first 6 layers of the pyramid receive their books while those in the seventh and eighth layers do not receive any. This assumption is valid since people who receive books receive them from those two layers below them on the pyramid.
Number of people in the first 6 levels=1+6+36+216+1296+7776=9295
Number of people in levels 7 and 8=326,592
Percentage of people in the first 8 levels who get books=2.86%
Percentage of people in the first 8 levels who do not get any books=97.14%
Do you still feel comfortable sharing a post that basically cheats 97.14% of the people participating in it? Do you still think that this is harmless fun? And don’t forget that we assumed that everyone in the first 6 layers gets at least one book. The actual figures are definitely going to be worse. The percentage of people left empty-handed remains pretty much the same even if you assume that the chain is even more succesful and extends to more levels. Don’t believe me? Do the math!
The fact that books are involved seems to lower everybody’s guard. Would you feel as inclined to participate in an exchange program like this if someone said, ‘Send Rs. 500 today to the bank account mentioned and you’ll soon get Rs. 18000 via bank transfer very soon.’ Now it sounds like a proper scam, doesn’t it? So if you’re into reading and all you want to do is spread the joy of reading, why don’t you just surprise one of your friends with a book? At least you can be sure that they are pretty likely to return the favour somewhere down the line.
A similar model, that takes advantage of a geometric progression, called Ghost to Ghost hookup is used in the Three Investigators series of novels. Whenever the Three Investigators (Jupiter, Peter and Bob) need any sort of information, each of them calls up five friends and ask for what they need. If their friends can’t pitch in with info, they’re each asked to call up five of their friends and pass on the message. Pretty soon, all the kids in Rocky Beach are on the lookout and it’s inevitable that the Three Investigators will get their hands on the info that they need sooner or later.
At the end of the day, if anything seems too good to be true, it probably is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pyramid scheme that promises you insane returns for a small investment or a Nigerian princess stuck in the UK who needs money to get back home, you should watch out for the Internet is dark and full of terrors. And if anybody actually does get 36 books through this chain, I’ll eat my hat. Not that I even have one…
You might want to share this post with friends and family who might fall victim to this scam. And you might also be interested in knowing that pyramid schemes and related Ponzi schemes are illegal in India as well as numerous other countries. (Read this)
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