Last spring, I wrote a little essay called "Digital Maoism" for the science debate Web site Edge.org, which is orchestrated by writer and literary agent John Brockman. The essay quickly took on a life of its own, spawning an ongoing series of commentary both in print and online. My central point in the original piece was that the current fad for aggregating the efforts of multitudes of people over the Internet is moving the Web in the wrong direction. The subsequent debates have touched on a number of important ideas that I would like to follow up on here.
Part of my argument admittedly focuses on highly personal values, such as my concern that collective online creations like Wikipedia have made the Web less expressive by absorbing the efforts of hordes of volunteer authors into an overly regularized scheme. I miss the challenging quirkiness of Web sites that have fallen into neglect since the rise of Wikipedia. It's a shame to see the Internet world increasingly diffracted by a single organizing principle, when the whole point of the Web for me is to experience the strangeness of other points of view. (I find blogs and other recent online fads both overly structured and too transient to replace the odd, revelatory worldviews laid bare in the original generation of Web pages.) Some people agree with me, some don't, and others cannot even understand why I am making any point at all about this. It's a matter of taste and perspective.
Other parts of my argument are more easily framed as scientific, or at least empirical, questions. An example is the problem of how to predict when the "wisdom of crowds" will work effectively. The term is best known as the title of a book by James Surowiecki and is often introduced with the story of an ox in a marketplace. In the story, a bunch of people all guess the animal's weight, and the average of their guesses turns out to be generally more reliable than any one person's estimate. A common idea about why this works is that the mistakes various people make cancel each other out; an additional, more important idea is that there's at least a little bit of correctness in the logic and assumptions underlying many of the guesses, so they center around the right answer. (This latter formulation emphasizes that individual intelligence is still at the core of the collective phenomenon.) At any rate, the effect is repeatable and is widely held to be one of the foundations of both market economies and democracies.
People have tried to tap into this collective wisdom in a variety of ways in recent years. There are experiments in using stock market–like systems, in which people bet on ideas to answer seemingly unanswerable questions, like when terrorist events will occur or when stem cell therapy will allow a person to grow new teeth. There is also an enormous amount of energy being put into aggregating the judgments of Internet users to create content, as in the collectively generated link Web site Digg.
Unfortunately, crowd dynamics are not always reliable. Markets have their tulip crazes, leading to bubbles and crashes, and crowds can turn into lynch mobs. Institutions that rely on crowds usually develop mechanisms to prevent such pathologies. Stock markets might adopt automatic trading shutoffs, for instance, which are triggered by overly abrupt shifts in price or trading volume. Wikipedia has had to put restrictions on how people edit entries in order to soften the level of chaos and conflict over controversial items.
The Net has for the most part delivered happy surprises about human group potential. For instance, the rise of the Web in the early 1990s took place without leaders, ideology, advertising, commerce, or anything else other than a positive sensibility shared by millions of people. Who would have thought that was possible? It stands to reason, however, that the Net can also accentuate negative patterns of behavior or even bring about unforeseen social pathology. Over the last century, new media technologies have often become prominent as components of massive outbreaks of organized violence. For example, the Nazi regime was a major pioneer of television and cinematic propaganda.
After a generation or so, people seem to become less affected by the power of a new electronic medium. Many people in the Muslim world have only recently gained access to satellite TV and the Internet; I wonder if that has something to do with the current wave of violent radicalism. I also worry about the next generation of kids around the world growing up with Internet-based technology that emphasizes aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to turn into a mob when they come of age?
Since the Internet makes crowds more accessible, it would be beneficial to have a general and clear set of rules explaining when the wisdom of crowds is likely to produce meaningful results. Surowiecki proposes four principles in his book; in my essay, I came up with three. His rules are framed from the perspective of the interior dynamics of the crowd. For instance, he suggests there should be limits on the ability of members of the crowd to see how others are about to decide on a question, in order to preserve independence and avoid mob behavior.