zero-sum game

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Sat Jun 2 00:20:22 UTC 2012

I've struggled with the expression "zero-sum game" for quite a while. I often think it's my lack of understanding, but I think I've found a clear example where the use varies from the standard definition, such as "(of a game or situation) in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other: altruism is not a zero-sum game" for "zero-sum" in the Mac dictionary.

"On Facebook, 'Likes' Become Ads" by Somini Sengupta in the New York Times (on

"So Sponsored Stories creates a zero-sum game," Mr. Goldman wrote. "I as a user probably don't get any value from the public presentation of my implicit endorsement (if anything, it might hurt my position with my friends), but Facebook and its advertisers benefit from it."

Here, Facebook users who "like" a product are then featured as liking that product to their Facebook "friends." Mr. Goldman's face is appearing on his "friends'" feeds or ad bar, but I don't think he's losing anything at all.

Even in the case of altruism (the example in the Mac dictionary), the benefactor is going out of their way to do something nice to the recipient of the altruistic act, so there is some sort of loss, but can Mr. Goldman's appearance as pseudo-ads somehow factor in a zero-sum game?

Benjamin Barrett
Seattle, WA

The American Dialect Society -

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