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Jun. 2 2010 - 2:10 pm | 218 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Crowd-sourced memory: An interview with Amit Aggarwal

Does the phrase “two heads are better than one” apply to memory too? It very well might when it comes to finding the best way to remember words, especially for a test.

Amit Aggarwal, 26, realized this while he studied for the GRE a few years ago. He turned that revelation into a business called mnemonicdictionary.com. Crowd-sourcing the best way to remember a word, users add their ideas for a new entry and then vote up or down on other people’s ideas.

Based in Hyderabad, India, Aggarwal has garnered a group of loyal followers – nearly 30,000 unique visitors in April – and it’s not just the folks you would suspect.

I understand you came to this project while you were studying for your GRE test. Are test-takers your primary audience?

It started with GRE test-takers as the primary audience but it’s proving extremely useful for anyone who is interested in building English vocabulary. Our current target is to reach out to all those people for whom vocabulary is a major roadblock, without losing focus on the GRE test takers.

Crowd-sourced ideas are wonderful, but so hard to start. How did you build your crowd in the first place?

Initially my college mates worked as the local crowd for me. My creatively inclined friends would help in devising whacky, funny and easy-to-remember mnemonics. Sometimes we were even spoilt for choice and had to pick the best mnemonic for a word after a lot of brainstorming sessions. This exercise of taking creative inputs from friends gave me the idea of pro-actively involving the web-based crowd for generating mnemonics.

Do you think there is a special advantage to having a crowd figure out the best mnemonic–it’s sort of like a giant study group right?

I think this is the best way to figure out which mnemonic works for all. Sometime a mnemonic that worked for you may or may not work for others. So, we have to constantly take feedback from our users (in the form of mnemonics rating) to figure out the best mnemonics so that our website followers are saved from filtering out the best memory aid from a long list.

Do you enter the words or are your contributors allowed to do so as well?

For words, we are using Princeton University wordnet (wordnet.princeton.edu) database which consists of more than 150,000 English words. For those words, the users can add example sentences, mnemonics, word origins and any other comment.

So are most of your readers fairly advanced English speakers then?

Not exactly.  You need not be an advanced English speaker to utilize the resources available on our website. Basic knowledge of English language is enough to be able to understand the content. Mnemonics explained on our website are deliberately kept simple without any flowery descriptions. They are easy to grasp, co-relate and recall without going through painful rote learning sessions.

What’s the criteria for picking a word? Promontory, for instance, definitely seems like the kind of word you find on a test, but won’t necessarily use in regular conversation. Do you receive requests for harder or easier words?

As of now we are picking words on following basis:

a) We follow the word list given in “Barron’s How to Prepare for the GRE: Graduate Record Examination” and pick a word from it  based on the frequency with which it has shown up in the
previous exams.

b) For all those words which have not yet been our word of the day, we pick one which has a high search count. If you look carefully, we are recording search counts for each word. Also, if you are a logged-in user, you will be able to see number of times you have searched a particular word till date.

Have you done research as to why this method works?

Honestly, I didn’t start this after doing some deep research. It just worked for me, so I thought that it may work for others as well .Surprisingly, it did work wonders for them and this we got to know from all the appreciation mails we received in the formative year of our website. In my opinion it works because:

Mnemonics techniques use parts of existing information in our memory instead of overloading the memory with 100 percent new information. So, by using mnemonics, you need to recall only a little of that new information and relate it to the existing information, and hence it puts less strain on our memory and you can output the information faster.

What are your plans for the future in terms of this idea? Do you plan books, other languages, expansion of the website in some way?

Our future plans include an offline version of our website database in the form of a printed book/eBook/mobile application—so that users can access it even if they are not connected.  Also, we are trying to reach the Chinese audience, as we feel will there is a huge market of English-language learners there. We will keep our focus on English language for next few years but this idea of crowd sourcing mnemonics (memory tricks) can be applied to anything you find difficult to remember like foreign languages, math formulae, chemistry Periodic Table and the list goes on.

Tell me about your background. Where are you from, what education have you pursued and is this website a full-time job now?

I hail from a small district called Hisar, which is in the state Haryana in India. From my engineering days, I always had an ardent desire of doing something in e-learning and web 2.0 space. Mnemonic Dictionary was born (when I was in final year of my college) and conceptualized as a result of my experimentation with learning practices. After graduating from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay as a Chemical Engineer in year 2007, I worked for a few months in a software firm. I decided to quit my high-paying cushioned job and work full time on my child, Mnemonic Dictionary. Since then, I am working on MD most of the time and I also work as freelance web consultant whenever I am running short of cash!


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  1. collapse expand

    I visited the site and it is impressive, thanks Michael, great find!

  2. collapse expand

    @Joey, Good to hear that you like MD :) thanks :)

    @Michael, Thanks again for taking and publishing the interview.

    :)

  3. collapse expand

    You are welcome Amit. Very interesting idea for many applications, as you mentioned.

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    About 10 years ago, this lady in her 80s told me a childhood story about the day her mom tied her to a post on the porch. It was punishment for riding her tricycle past the curb at the end of their block. In the middle of the story she said to me, 'Wait, mom didn't tie me to the porch, she tied the tricycle to the porch. I just remembered that.' I've been fascinated by memory ever since.

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