Rise of the Amateur

This is a response to Brad’s post on the wisdom of crowds. Brad, I’m so glad you posted about this and your discussion is really
insightful. Consensus based learning and the "wisdom of crowds" truly fascinate me. Reading Rheingold’s Smart Mobs for 505 tipped me off, academically speaking, to the value of collective, decentralized behavior. I also read The Wisdom of Crowds just afterwards and I gained a lot from it.

As evidenced by the work of many authors including Surowiecki, a consensus oriented, collaborative model of information gathering can be very helpful given the proper conditions. But culturally, it really seems that just the notion of conversing on a large scale with many contributors, or collaborating for the purposes of problem solving, are overlooked if not actively avoided by any entity other than Google. That may be hyperbole but whether it springs from culture, convention or otherwise, it seems that a top-down, centralized approach to knowledge production, actually to production in general, is far more prevalent in most industries than a more liberal open source approach.

We Americans and generally ‘westernized’ people have a
deep respect for knowledge, specialization, and naturally, those who specialize. It’s apparent in basic colloquial expressions like "jack of all trades, master of none." It’s also demonstrated in the way that universities are stringently divided into departments/disciplines, designed to herd students into academic niches.

The sense that expertise is supremely valuable can run exactly counter to the idea that the actions of large numbers of non-experts taken in aggregate, perform more effectively in most situations than independent actors.1

I’ve seen that many people often shy away from using wikis and online sources as credible references for information. I’ve definitely encountered the bashful bit when people admit to using Wikipedia and "amateur" blogs as resources, but also claim not to really trust them.

I recall when wikis reached the fray a couple of years ago, attempting to discuss the wiki concept with people who were uniformly resistant to the idea. They seemed very concerned, almost disturbed by the thought of a completely democratized, free, open source method of providing serious, mostly useful information to the public. The idea that "just anyone," could be an authority on a subject sans an institutional governing body seems to make people highly uncomfortable.

We tend to imagine a lone, rogue hacker type who would barge in on our perfecttion and ruin the system for all, which totally subverts the wiki ideal that depends on the concept of collaboration and uber mass input to avoid such viscous occurences.

But we all know that wikis are prone to abuse and fraudulent activity. Wikis may be somewhat alien to those of us who are accustomed to thinking of reference tools as compiled by recognized institutions and publicly accountable individuals– not just ‘anyone with a computer and an internet connection.’

But the crucial constraint on the notion of the wisdom of crowds is that if you have enough people, each with a computer and an internet connection– two thousand compiled heads are better than one "expert" head. And I feel like it’s pretty tough to argue with that statement. I’m also not sure why the philosophy hasn’t caught on. It should be all the rage.

As Surowiecki says, a large part of the conflict is that we as a society are not used to
trusting the ‘unwashed masses’ when it comes to accuracy or
precision of information. The conflict between the blogosphere and the wiki luddites is likely a symptom of the broader discourses surrounding socioeconomic class, education, etc.

The narratives that function to marginalize groups of individuals are (of course) very bound up in conceptions of class. It seems that people bristle or scoff at the thought of open source, end user generated information out of fear that "those people," the ones who are technologically savvy enough to post on Wikipedia and follow the blogs, can’t be trusted to provide reasonably credible information.

As much as I wouldn’t (willfully) entrust my life
to a doctor that checks Wikipedia as s/he’s determining my medical fate, wikis and blogs are valuable resources no matter what one does for a living. We should expect professionals to use them as well, whether they choose to admit it or not. I definitely have great faith in the ability of large groups of dissociated individuals to solve problems effectively and provide solid, citable information.

However, I also question which online scenarios might provide the proper conditions that make such independent but meaningful aggregate behavior possible.

Information and the production of information, are increasingly available to a large portion of the population. And we’re clearly using it. Wikis and interactive blogs,
vlogs, YouTube, etc, are shining examples of the "2.0" movement towards
a web that’s comprised of "the average user" generated content, which as we’ve said before, can be a powerful media tool.

Granting the
end user more control is certainly preferable in the context of crowd theory. But I don’t know that most wikis and blogs fulfill the basic constraints that Surowiecki and others describe, which are essential to distinguishing crowd wisdom from group think.

The contributors for many of the blogs I read are very obviously
far from "diverse." By definition the people who actively use the web are much more homogenous than the population at large. And given the level of community on the web and the strength of
social networks, people are hardly independent entities when they’re posting on any website.

For Wikipedia to function properly, it requires as many users as possible, who as individuals have an interest in policing the entries that are relevant to them. But this is simply not the case for smaller wikis and blogs, or even some of the more obscure entries listed in Wikipedia.

It seems that just as economists are infamously prone to developing abstract models that simply don’t exist in real markets, those who theorize on the wisdom of crowds, might be inappropriately stretching a phenomenon which is specific to a particular, constructed environment. I don’t think this type of knowledge production gets enough credit or validation as being effective.

But I also think that true examples of "smart mobs" are hard to find on the internet, despite the web’s potential to connect and engage infinite numbers of individual actors. Theories about the aggregate behavior of crowds in very specific circumstances may not be applicable to our larger experience, even if it seems so, especially given the more recent web 2.0 trends toward a higher level of interaction and end-user content production.

Nicole K. Guerra

1. James Surowiecki (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. New York: Random House