Wisdom of the Crowd? And the Internet!

Posted on December 12, 2010 in Sci-Tech

By Prateek Waghre:

(Disclaimer: The author of this article is aware of the umpteen advantages of Crowdsourcing and how it has revolutionized the web and in many ways our lives. The purpose of this post is to draw the readers’ attention to its limitation. Also, this article was originally posted here.)

It was in ancient Greece that the world saw perhaps one of the earliest instances of utilizing the wisdom of the crowd. Today we call it democracy. Even though the free world accepts it as the best form of the Government, many would concede that it is far from perfect and fraught with weaknesses. Which brings me to the point of this post — and the other best known instance of the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ -  crowd sourcing/user generated content.

Crowd sourcing has 2 avatars. First, where you rely on the mass participation to add value individually — like a volunteer drive or contributors to an open source project. Second, where mass participation makes a collective decision. This collective decision comes to be accepted as conventional wisdom. Majority wins, but the caveat here is that the majority may not always be right. One of the most interesting (and thankfully harmless) examples of this is the Minuscule versus Miniscule debate.

As far as the internet is concerned. The current form of crowd/volunteer generated content owes its roots to the Free and Open Source Movement that swept the software world in the years that preceded the Web 2.0 revolution. The only problem is, unlike in the case of code which has implicit quality checks, the world of content has no such luxuries. We rely on droves of volunteers/contributors to do the right thing. Something you can’t always take for granted.

The Collective Crowd

Wikipedia is perhaps one of the best examples of a Volunteer driven initiative, and while Jimmy Wales had the most noble intentions in mind, the site has mockingly (and somewhat aptly) earned itself the moniker — ‘Wickedpedia’. While a huge number of the people swear by its treasure chest of information, no journalist or researcher will cite it as a source.

The same collaborative nature of the website, that is responsible for its rapid updates has also proven to be the reason for some of its harshest criticism. Conservatives (especially in America) have argued that Wikipedia has a strong systemic bias against them. They’ve even set up a wikipedia clone — Conservapedia — detailing several examples of what in their opinion is bias. The Daily Mail, a conservative UK newspaper, carried a story in which the writer Petronella Wyatt detailed how her self written biography was mischievously edited with not-so-nice things about her. When she tried to reach out to Jimmy Wales, she found that his page was the victim of an attack too, proclaiming that the Wikipedia founder had been shot dead. The Telegraph’s James Delingpole wrote in late 2009, about how a Cambridge based scientist and Green Party Activist William Connolley systematically used Wikipedia as a weapon. According to a report he cites Connolly, who was a website administrator at Wikipedia created and edited 5,428 unique articles ranging from the politics of climate science to attacks on some climate scientists.

Closer to home, here is a version of the Wikipedia entry for Barkha Dutt, which claimed she was married. Something she denied on twitter.  If you follow How I Met Your Mother, one of lead characters took advantage of this wiki culture to, well, help him out with women. In a trick called the ‘Lorenzo Von Matterhorn’ (video) he shrewdly sets up various profiles of himself and generously showers himself with various accolades. Agreed this is fiction. But there are many instances when people take advantage of this and edit their own wikipedia entries. The average Wikipedia undergoes several revisions a day. Some correct, some incorrect. And even though most errors are eventually weeded out, people who swear by the site will be well advised to know that it is fairly susceptible to attacks, pranks and probably bias.

In July, Facebook’s army of volunteer translators let them down when all Spanish users saw expletives where they would normally find friends’ birthdays. Not a pleasant sight!

The Viral Crowd

We have also effectively crowd sourced our information gathering mechanism. As we shift from direct reference to social reference as a way of finding news. We often forget to question the veracity of any information before performing the seemingly innocuous action of sharing the news on either Facebook or retweeting it on Twitter. Now, when we do pass along incorrect information it has very serious implications. Possible results can vary from damaged reputations to actual physical damage. Take for example, EasyDNS that was incorrectly named as the DNS provider that took down Wikileaks.org. Several blogs/publications picked up the story and ran with easyDNS instead of EveryDNS which was the actual DNS provider. Several users tweeted/shared links to these posts. Leading to EasyDNS having to clarify through a blog post, that also included some caustic criticism of internet journalism.

Ok, this may have been inadvertent, but the dangers are real. In the last week of November, the Indonesian President’s Disaster Management Advisor’s Twitter account was hacked and a tweet that translates to “Jakarta tsunami tomorrow” was sent out. Indonesia has the second largest Twitter and Facebook user base in the world. And given how Indonesia suffered during the last Tsunami in 2004, such information spreading virally on those platforms could have lead to widespread panic.

We saw another example of this information mob in July this year. When rumours about popular Dutch DJ — Tiesto dying in a car accident started doing the rounds on twitter. I remember it had become a trending topic as well. It was finally denied by DJ Tiesto himself. But the incident served as a harbinger of sorts because it indicated the impending dangers of (blindly)crowd sourcing information. It happened again with Bill Cosby in August.

Things go viral on the internet all the time and they do not necessarily have to be true. In August, The Chive posted a rather amusing article about a girl named Jenny who supposedly quit her job by emailing a set of 33 photos to her entire office in which she conveyed her message by writing different things on a whiteboard in each photo. Including ones in which she outs her boss as a sexist, farmville-during-work player. Now this was immediately picked up by leading tech blogs and went viral. Only to be revealed as a hoax the following day. The incident itself is harmless, except for the fact that this was created by two brothers who specialize in creating viral internet hoaxes. This was reportedly their 3rd strike. While the gullibility of the Internet media stares you in the face with this one. The stronger underlying message is that we can be socially engineered into believing almost anything. How long before these hoaxes move from harmless to harmful?

Now to add a touch of controversy, in the recent Radia Tapes’ Controversy/Conundrum that has engulfed the Indian Media. Several users have expressed their ire and outrage on twitter, while there is nothing wrong with that, the impression one gets from reading the numerous tweets on the topic is that many people have not really heard the tapes themselves. They are merely relying on twitter to piece together information(crowdsourcing) together and probably seeing an incorrect/incomplete picture.(Note: I am referring to ‘activists’ on both sides of the argument)

Just a few characters separate a virtuous circle from a vicious circle — and while the wisdom of crowd has gotten us far. We must never let that substitute our individual wisdom. And never forget that a crowd can always turn into a mob.

The writer is a Correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz. He also writes at WatBlog.com and allthingssensical.co.cc.

Image courtesy