Every now and then, I see something on facebook, tumblr, or some other sector of the internet that asks participants to list a certain number of random facts about themselves. I rarely do this. It is not necessarily because I believe such surveys to be cliché or pointless; it is rather because I am confused about what determines the randomness of a fact. Does “random”, in this context, mean trivial? Does it mean that the person constructing the list is not to spend much time thinking about the facts or putting them in any particular order? Does it simply mean that the facts do not necessarily need to be related to each other in any way? My observations of things that other people post on the internet has led me to come to the conclusion that the word “random” is defined in many different ways, and that the tone and nature of a list of “random facts” will differ greatly from individual to individual. Some examples of things that can be classified as “random facts” include personal anecdotes, opinions, self-descriptions of personality or physical traits, details about one’s family or pets, personal biographical information, or a detail about one’s hobbies or interests. It would seem that the entire point of “random fact” lists is that everyone has a different idea of what kinds of facts should be on these lists. You may not learn a lot about a person by what facts about themselves they choose to share in this type of context, but what you do learn about them might be interesting.

As a nerd and a smart-aleck, I am incapable of simply accepting this. The reason for my objection is that the word “random” has a specific mathematical meaning. Granted, this mathematical meaning differs from the word’s standardly used definition as given by English dictionaries, which say that “random” means purposeless or haphazard. Normally, it is my policy to trust dictionaries. However, I believe that the official mathematical definition of the word “random” is worth noting. According to the statistics class I took a year ago (and in which I got good grades, thereby justifying my insistent use of the concepts and definitions I acquired from it), “random” means that any possible outcome has an equal chance of occurring. For example, the roll of a fair die is random because each of the sides has an equal chance of being the side facing up when the die lands. Picking a card out of a standard deck is random because each card has an equal chance of being selected. Using a random number generator is random because any number within the selected range has an equal chance of being produced. Listing facts about yourself is not random because, no matter how purposelessly and haphazardly you are doing it, you are deliberately selecting the facts that you will use.

The only way to make a list of facts random is to randomly select these facts from a larger list of facts. That is to say, in order to generate a short list of random facts, a person should first write a long list of facts and then use a completely fair method to randomly choose the predetermined number of facts from the long list. This raises another question, though. How comprehensive should the long list of facts be? It can’t actually contain every possible fact about the person in question, because such a list would be infinitely long. I think that might actually be literally true, but even if it isn’t, the list would be extremely long and therefore inconvenient to use. Thus, I suggest that the list should contain only those facts which the writer of the list deems internet-worthy based upon its coolness and the likelihood that others would be interested in reading it. For example, I might include some facts about my musical preferences or my favorite books or movies, but not a fact about my favorite brand of peanut butter. Alternatively, someone who considers peanut butter to be a fascinating or important topic might use such a fact.

It’s too bad I have a lot of homework to do tonight.  Otherwise, I would love to spend some time compiling a long list of facts about myself in order to prepare for the next time the internet wants to know some random facts about me.