Thursday, April 10, 2008

Could you keep my place in line?

Line-ups are both eminently civilized and—really annoying! The first in first out (FIFO) principle is inherently egalitarian and respect for it is a sign of social order. But there's something crazy about using our bodies as place keepers in a queue, sometimes for hours on end.

Inevitably, after waiting some time in a lineup, someone will need to step out for a while. Rather than lose one's priority in the sequence, the convention is to ask someone (a complete stranger if need be), "Could you keep my place in line?"

The language here is metaphorical and indirect. The request is not really about keeping a place. It's about promising on the return of the person to vouch to any potential challengers that indeed this particular person was previously in line at this particular point in the sequence.

The fact is, complete strangers generally do agree to "keep your place in line". And that's a further sign of civil behaviour. Maybe line ups aren't so bad after all!

I bet there are lots of good stories about line-ups. I'd love to hear some. Then we could publish a book (I'm trying to think of a queued name for it ...)

P.S. I've tried to give equal time to the different spellings lineup / line-up / line up. I really don't know which is correct. Those who wish to correct me should form an orderly line.

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Blogger josh reich said...

Ok. I'll take the bait.

On the day the iPhone was released a co-worker paid someone he found on Craigslist to wait in line for him. I can't recall the full details of the deal, but I think he paid $100 upfront with another $100 due at the end of the day. Around noon he brought the guy some lunch and a chair.

An hour before the store opened I went with him to see what all the commotion was about. As it so happened the stand in was not much of a stand up guy and stood up my colleague. The guy sold the spot in the line to someone else for a higher price.

We ended up walking around the line and found someone who said he would sell his spot for $50. Well it was only one spot, but I wanted to wait in line too. Although I had no intention of buying a phone the entire commotion and hype of the moment caught up with me.

The consensus of the surrounding folk was that it was OK for the two of us to take the spot of one. There really wasn't much rational debate about it. Everyone was just in the San Franciscanesque hippy vibe of the moment, despite the fact that this was New York and we were lining up to spend a chunk of cash on a consumer gizmo.

In the end our $50 got the two of us in line, and the person who 'sold his spot' ended up sticking around too.

When the 3G iPhone comes out in a few months, I'll try and track down Tversky and Khanemann and get them to come along. Hopefully the same tactic will work for four and maybe I can finally take my place in the pantheon of behavioral economics.

11:48 PM, April 10, 2008  
Blogger David Zetland said...

In Cuba (a place with many lines)< people just keep track of the person in front of them and then wonder around and talk to each other. VERY efficient.

Also note there literature on "procedural utility" uses line examples, e.g., a single queue to go to multiple counters (airports) versus one queue/register (grocery stores). I HATE multiple queues, since I always *seem* to pick the wrong one.

7:46 PM, May 08, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I like that Cuban idea!

Years ago I took a course on queuing theory. We even used a simulation language specially designed for queues (the name of which I now forget). Yet somehow queues still confound us!

10:08 AM, May 10, 2008  
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