On the Wisdom of Crowds Versus Knowledge Elitism
I’ve written about this first bit before, but it bears repeating:
It used to be that knowledge was a scarce commodity. It was carefully collected, preserved and protected by the church and by the state. Teachers of various kinds used to be the ones charged with disseminating this knowledge to the general public in carefully measured amounts.
Although many, many people still believe that knowledge is a rare and arcane commodity, to be handled only by the noble few, the world has changed. The rise of the internet, coupled with falling connection charges, increased data speeds and the ubiquitous spread of internet-capable devices, amounts to the single greatest revolution mankind has ever witnessed.
But it is a somewhat slow revolution and one which has not yet reached its full culmination. And this is most likely why the masses have not yet recognized it for what it is: the ultimate means of democratizing knowledge. As such, it also means power relationships are steadily changing: those who have knowledge no longer wield as much power over those who do not.
And it goes a step further: not only do the majority of people now have access to knowledge, but they can also contribute their own. And this is what worries the former gatekeepers of knowledge more than anything. Now the final battle is being fought over who gets to generate knowledge: the specialists or the masses. And the central battleground for this final showdown is Wikipedia.
In his brilliant treatise ‘On The Wisdom of Crowds‘ (subtitled Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations) James Surowiecki argues against the fact that the collective generation of knowledge necessarily equates to ‘madness’ or a mob mentality. Turning conventional (gatekeeper) wisdom on its head, Surowieki argues that crowd-sourced knowledge can often be more insightful, more accurate and more useful than traditional, specialist-driven knowledge. However, there are a few conditions:
- The group must be large and the backgrounds and ideas of the group must be diverse enough to ensure a great deal of heterogeneity.
- There should be a mechanism through which all voices and ideas can be expressed.
- There should be limited communication between members of the group so as to prevent the consolidation / revision of diverse ideas.
- People should be able to choose the areas to which they would like to contribute.
If these conditions are met the ‘herd’ very often makes better decisions than any particular member thereof. What’s more, they often make better, more useful contributions than the experts.
And all of this is exactly what makes the internet in general, and Wikipedia in particular so absolutely, wonderfully great.
Why Wikipedia is the Best Thing on the Internet
I used to love reading through my encyclopedias. I still have a full collection of Britannica in my library. And then I got hold of the digital versions of Grolier and Britannica and Encarta. Now even those do not exist any more. And they don’t exist because of Wikipedia.
Do a search on anything in Google, and Wikipedia is invariably amongst the first results. It has become to the lay person and their quest to know what Google is to search engines.
Yet many people – especially snooty ‘I know best’ teachers – say that Wikipedia is unreliable. The reason these Luddites don’t get why Wikipedia is one of the best sources out there (outside of peer-reviewed academic articles) is that, as they put it, ‘anyone can edit a Wikipedia article’.
My response to this foolish objection is always this: ‘If it’s so easy to vandalize Wikipedia, why don’t you go and do it yourself?’
Predictably, the ignorant objectors will have no idea where to start. And the truth is, there are a number of hoops potential editors need to jump through, as well as a great number of failsafes – including protected pages, monitors and the like. No doubt, there are errors – but, as any serendipitous Wikipedia surfer knows – these are quite rare and easy to spot. And in a number of studies Wikipedia comes out tied for number of (small) inaccuracies when compared its ‘more respected’ counterparts.
Says Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales:
“One of the big misconceptions about Wikipedia, people imagine that it‘s something like one million people each adding one sentence each and somehow miraculously it becomes something useful. But in fact what actually makes it work is the community. There‘s a really strong community of people behind the site and they are in constant communication by email and IRC chat rooms and things like this. And so they are monitoring every change that goes to the site – there are people who are looking at it and vetting it and trying to see if it‘s good or not.”
A number of dedicated editors and watchers keep Wikipedia safe, and specialized software monitors any changes.
On the whole then, Wikipedia is extremely reliable. Thousands of statements are continually being refined and are almost all referenced. And where there is vandalism, it is repaired relatively quickly.
But what makes Wikipedia truly awesome is that they encourage bold edits and anyone is free to contribute. Wikipedia articles are thus the ultimate expression of the wisdom of crowds and of the democratization of knowledge.
Like anything you come across on the internet, you do need to approach Wikipedia with a skeptical eye, but to say it is ‘unreliable’ smacks of either elitism or ignorance. And if educators are going to insist on demonizing Wikipedia, let them at least encourage their students to use it as a diving off point – it’s a great way to get an overview of a topic, and most often an incredible source of links to further ‘more reliable’ reading.
And, of course, those naysayers can always begin contributing to Wikipedia themselves.
Then watch if they say it’s unreliable.
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