A Million Secret Secrets (A Short Story)

No one was sure if it came from the government, but it seemed doubtful.  The government could certainly come up with something so cruel, but never something so fanciful.  It did seem, however, that at least someone in the government had to be colluding in the game, or else there would had to have been some terrible breach of security or something, given the breadth of information involved.  An eccentric rich banker with government contacts was a popular guess; or a former president gone endearingly insane.

The spokesteam (as in spokespeople on a team) were a strange group and it was hard to question their sincerity.  Who could say that a team consisting of the likes of Morgan Freeman, Billy Graham, Al Sharpton, Warren Buffet, George Takei, Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, Betty White, Ellen DeGeneres, Cormac McCarthy, Jon Stewart, some random teenager from Oklahoma and Selena Gomez were all engaged in some sort of conspiracy?  It was hard to imagine all these people in a room together, let alone arranging something like this together.  So the fact that they all independently gave the same story suggested that it was the truth.

“It’s some sort of, like, contest,” Gomez said in her YouTube version of the Big Announcement.  “The, uh, person or people who put it together told all of us that we’re supposed to keep where it is coming from a secret.  But I was there and I can tell you that it’s not really important who it is, they’re legit, that’s why they asked so many like totallly different famous people to vouch for them.  They just want to play this game, okay, and every single person who wins gets a million dollars.  A million dollars!  That might seem like it’s impossible because, you know, what if a thousand people win?  Even someone like me who doesn’t need a million dollars, let’s be real guys, not saying that in a bragging way, but I’m grateful for what I have – anyways, even someone like me can’t afford to pay a million bucks to a thousand people, or like ten thousand people, you’re talking trillions of dollars there, right?  But I guess the trick is, is they really, really don’t expect even a hundred people to win.  Not even ten people.  I guess it’s sort of like a bet.  I don’t know how it all plays out, but I’m definitely going to play too, just to see what happens.  I mean, I’ll donate the money to charity if I win, of course, but mostly I just want to see.”

The game had two parts, although no one knew it did until after the first part was over.  A website was announced.  Every person who wanted to play was encouraged to go and type in their social security or other ID number, and was assured that if they tried to impersonate someone else, they would just end up invalidating their winnings, because to collect they would have to prove themselves in the end.

Once in the website, each entrant was told to make sure they had a good three or four consecutive hours to devote to filling out the entry form, and to wait as much as a couple weeks if they had to in order to be sure they had enough time.  The game wouldn’t activate until nearly everyone had had a chance to play.  And everyone in the entire country was allowed to play, plus Canadians.

After the first couple hours online, of course, word got out of what you had to do, and it seemed pretty simple and rather unsettling.  A lot of people said it was all a conspiracy of some kind, but no one could figure out either 1) why all those celebrities would be attached to it unless they were totally duped, and 2) how the information could be used nefariously.  Again, the spokesteam assured everyone that the prize was real, and that filling out the form was necessary to enter.

So people did.  Lots of them, though of course not everybody.  What they were asked to do was definitely strange: describe a couple hundred people they knew in three words.  For example, if your former classmate John Smith came up (presumably they knew you had been classmates thanks to linking your SSN with academic records somehow), you might type “friendly, lazy, smart.”

It had to be exactly three words.  They had to be adjectives from a very long list of personality-describing adjectives which entrants were encouraged to look over for inspiration.  Everything from standard stuff like “creative” and “shy” to SAT words like “perspicacious” and “solicitous”; everything from normal but awkward-to-use words like “lucky” and “pure” to outright oddities like “puritanical” and “onanistic.”  Words that had been deemed as not applying to personalities, like “tall” or “purple” or “socialist” were excluded.

The computer system was set up so that copying and pasting didn’t work, and anyway if you tried putting the same three words for any two people, the system would reject the repeat, and force you to change one or the other.  So if you had put “kind, funny, mature” for your brother John, and then later put “funny, mature, kind” for your neighbor’s ex-girlfriend Jane, the system would bring up both John and Jane and tell you to differentiate the two.  To make matters more difficult, perfect synonyms resolved to each other.  So if you tried to change “funny, mature, kind” to “funny, mature, nice” the system would still reject it, because there was no real difference between “kind” and “nice.”  At the very least, you had to switch to a slightly different word, like “decent” or “gracious.”  “Humorous” was the same as “funny”; “smart” the same as “intelligent”; and so on.  (Some people argued against some of the synonym choices, but there was no one to respond.)

Additionally, the system judged your descriptions.  If you were overly kind to everyone – never using a negative word for anyone – the system would pester you to be more honest.  It had strange algorithms that allowed it to sense when you were just being random or throwing words around, and suggested that “entrants being dishonest will decrease chances of winning.”

Thus each entrant was encouraged to give a three-word encapsulation, as uniquely, accurately and honestly as possible, for almost all their close friends and family members and a number of more distant acquaintances from throughout their lifetime.  Once they had slogged through this challenge, having completed somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred entries, the system simply said “thank you, stay tuned.”

About a month and a week after the initial announcement, the spokesteam announced that they had been told that there was a second part to the challenge.  They swore they didn’t know this going in, and they swore that this second part was the final part.  They were very clear about it.

DeGeneres said, on her TV show, “Okay, so, this is the really interesting part.  And now I see why they think of this as an experiment, I guess.  It’s really a great big game.  Sort of like a great big game of Guess Who?, do you remember that?  With the little faces?  It’s like that but with a lot more at stake than who gets bragging rights at recess.  Okay so it goes like this.  If you go on the website today and punch in your social security number – I know, eegh, scary, identity theft, government intrusion 1984 ai yi yi whatever it’s a million dollars and you know you’re doing it too – I mean come on think of what you put on Facebook, and you don’t win anything there except the knowledge of what your college professor ate for dinner – okay okay I’m getting to it, so you go in to the website, right, and this time it’ll just be a little three entry form thingies for you to – get this – describe yourself.  And it’s a contest.  A game.  You have to put in the three adjectives that describe yourself based on what everyone said about you.  You have to guess it right.  And you only get one chance.’

‘Yes!  I know!  One chance!  Only one chance!  They did say they didn’t think anyone was gonna win, right?  So like, with me, let’s say I go in and I try oh, um, ‘funky, good at math, and calm’ – because I’m feeling ironic, alright? – no I guess ‘good at math’ isn’t one word, but bear with me – was ‘mathematical’ one of them? – let’s say I put those three in, the system will prooobably come back and say ‘sorry, bub, that’s wrong.  There goes your chance at a million dollars, thanks for playing.’  So you better be really dang sure you think the words you put in are- Oh!  And here’s how the system figured out your words.  It took the three words that came up the most among all the what hundred, two hundred people who described you.  So if – what’s a word for me? – that most people would use? – let’s be charitable and go with, oh, ‘charitable,’ sure, that’s nice, that’s a nice word.  Let’s say of the two hundred people who described me, oh, forty of them were nice and said I was ‘charitable,’ that’d be my number one answer I guess, like Family Feud, and that would have to be one of three I put in.  So I have to get all three right, first try, and if I do that… a million bucks.’

‘I know what you’re thinking – well, let’s all post all the answers we put online and then everyone can just add them up and we all get a million dollars, because I’m sure we all wrote down and remember… every… single… description…  Oh.  No?  Did-  did you?  You?  Oh this guy took pictures of his screen.  Good, good.  Your friends will all be one hundredth of the way to winning.’

‘Oh and before anyone says anything, I’ve been assured that this website is like the Death Star of secure websites, so don’t even try to hack your way in.  The Death Star without that one little weak spot.  So don’t even try.”

Clearly the game could easily be cheated, as DeGeneres pointed out, if everyone and their mother was willing – and able – to recall all their descriptions, and to let everyone else know what they said.  There was nothing in the rules that said a million people couldn’t all win, so no one had anything to directly lose by sharing.

But the uniqueness requirement ruined everything.  The system, in forcing everyone to use very unique triples for each individual, all but ensured that the top three words for any given person were words with low counts overall.  Sure, some very funny person could take a decent bet that “funny” might be on top for them, but what about the other two?  And what if twelve of that person’s friends put “funny,” but another fourteen put the similar-but-different “witty” because they had used “funny” too often already?

This way, if even a couple people who had described one entrant skipped out on revealing their answers, that entrant could miss the crucial data to make the right guess.  And no one knew just how many people, and which, were responsible for describing them.  Not every close friend or family member had been included, it seemed.

Generously, the system allowed you ‘test’ one word at a time.  So you could try out “punctual” if you felt that was one of your words.  If it was wrong, you were still done and out, so this was only slightly helpful, but theoretically it could let someone zero in on their answer with a little more focus if they were pretty sure about one or two of the adjectives.  (And of course, it allowed for increased suspense, if you managed to get the first word right.)

It became clear that the synonym-matching function of the system was a generosity as well.  No one had to guess whether “funny” or “humorous” had been used for them, which would have been nearly impossible on its own.  Determining the subtle difference between “witty” and “funny” was hard enough.

And the clincher, of course, was that if you asked someone for their description of you, assuming they did remember correctly, they could very welllieto you.  Because, if one of the words they had used for you was “gluttonous” or “dull” or “picky,” why would they want to reveal that?  Yes, they’d know that you had a million dollars at stake, but surely if just little old them fudged the truth and said they had written “discerning” instead of “picky,” or “relaxed” instead of “dull,” it wouldn’t upset your total results, would it?  You weren’t going to be getting a perfect 100% count anyway.  Why should they hurt your feelings if it wouldn’t, ultimately, help?

The game, then, came down to drawing the truth of oneself out of others.  Anyone’s best bet of winning was getting a large enough sample size of reliable answers that they could reasonable assume they had the right ones.  If polling your kith and kin revealed that “talkative,” “stylish,” and “direct” were the adjectives way ahead of the pack for you, each of them leading by ten answers or more, you just had to hope that there weren’t a dozen forgotten acquaintances hiding out there, all of whom had said you were “shallow.”  Or that a dozen of your good friends hadn’t lied to you and not revealed that they had called you “self-absorbed.”

The game could certainly induce some identity crises.

The spokesteam, in the days after the second part of the game had been revealed, were bombarded with questions.  They all said that it was unequivocal: this was the last step.  There were no tricks.  Millions of dollars had been readied by the mysterious game-makers to be distributed as soon as anyone won.  The spokesteam knew nothing else.  Some of them had tried and lost already themselves.  Leave them alone; they didn’t know what more to add.  Just go, do your best, and move on when you don’t win.  You can’t count on mysterious million-dollar lotteries anyways.

DeGeneres officially closed out her involvement by entering her three guesses, as voted by her studio audience, into her site.  The first word, “hyperactive,” was (perhaps generously) accepted as a synonym for one of her actual words, “energetic,” but she lost on the second entry when her studio audience voted for her to put in “friendly.”  The system didn’t reveal what the two actual remaining words were, which DeGeneres referred to as “a kind of torture.”

The contest is still open to anyone who hasn’t yet tried their words and lost.  To date, only three people have won.  One was a “humble, studious, devout” old nun who instantly became a folk hero and talk-show favorite, and who ended up giving 90% of her winnings to the church.  The second was a “shy, happy, meticulous” man with mild retardation who lived alone, and who had, it seemed, no surviving friends or family besides the city inspector who regularly checked in on the upkeep of his vintage cottage, and who shunned the spotlight completely from the day he was mobbed by camera crews while buying model airplanes from the hobby store.  The third was a “cold, mean, violent” convicted murderer, whose winnings were seized by the state and given to his victim’s family, and who chose as his last words, while sitting unsmiling on the electric chair, “Know thyself.”



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