On the Wisdom of Sheep

At the end of a long week I am somewhere over one of the Dakotas or something (Pueblo, Colorado, reports the captain), napping and listening to Steve Dahl, whom I’ve rediscovered thanks to his (mostly commercial-free) podcast. A fourth trip to the bathroom by a neighbor in the window seat and the end of Dahl’s show jogged me from my nap. I scrolled through the podcast menu and stopped on Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything,where I settled on Reading Benjamin, which imagines a bunker-bound Hitler and Goebbels, desperate for something to read, encountering Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction.Back on the ground, a week later:


Ben Walker’s Hitler fears that audiences will take the formation of art, bereft of “aura and authority,” as their own, thus becoming “empowered producers of cultural meaning.” [Or something like that– perhaps my friend Oren, who dabbles in cultural studies and finds himself on “vacation” from Haifa, will correct my mistaken interpretations.] Goebbels assures Hitler that he has nothing to worry about, that people are sheep and will never take the production of media into their own hands.

I have been hearing variations on the question, “are crowds wise or stupid?” for awhile now. As I asked last month, how deep does this user-generated movement go? I hope that week’s Wikimania will address such questions; meanwhile, some discussions and events that have had me thinking:

  • The debate between Kevin Rose and Jason Calacanis, which Mark Glaser summarized nicely as turning on the question of “how do you motivate people to join these crowds online and spend countless hours working on the sites without pay?” Rose claims that the Long Tail of the community makes Calacanis’ plan untenable:

As of right now there are 444,809 registered digg users. Since launch there have been 38,848 popular homepage stories, of which 11,943 were from the ‘Top 100’. That means historically less than 1/3 of homepage stories come from the ‘Top 100’.

Calacanis on the numbers:

1. The top DIGG users have not changed that much over time.
2. The top DIGG users are not responsible for 14% of stories–they are responsible for over 50%.

How about letting a scholar or two in to look at the numbers? (I must say, I have seen the “personal attacks” of which both Glaser and Calacanis accuse Rose.)

  • ·Stacy Schiff’s balanced essay on Wikipedia in the latest New Yorker, which is significantly more advanced than earlier knee-jerk criticisms. (I agree with Susan Crawford, that “You get the sense that Schiff really enjoyed finding all about its curious inhabitants.”):

Larry Sanger proposes a fine distinction between knowledge that is useful and knowledge that is reliable, and there is no question that Wikipedia beats every other source when it comes to breadth, efficiency, and accessibility. Yet the site’s virtues are also liabilities….Wikipedia remains a lumpy work in progress. The entries can read as though they had been written by a seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent; and citation is hit or miss. Wattenberg and Viégas, of I.B.M., note that the vast majority of Wikipedia edits consist of deletions and additions rather than of attempts to reorder paragraphs or to shape an entry as a whole….I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School,” he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,” he suggested. “It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.”

  • Nick Ansted’s live-blogged accounting of John Palfrey’s lecture on Zittrain’s Theory of Generativity. “The crowd,” wrote Ansted, “might be an elite community, such as the open source community or the blogging community. Do their views reflect everyone else’s? How mass can the crowd really be?” Later, John expanded on those thoughts in a chat: 1) how can we structure “new digital institutions” well so as to get the most out of the wisdom of the crowds but also recognize its limitations and 2) how [do we] establish appeals processes when these new types of institutions (even the most distributed ones) get it wrong
  • The conversation between Chris Anderson and Lee Gomes, nicely summarized by Nicholas Carr here and here. Carr’s conclusion, in the former post: “Anderson’s Long Tail theory explains a lot about how the Internet has influenced markets, but the true extent of the Long Tail and its impact remains to be seen.”
  • The lack of reserve with which many otherwise smart and skeptical Internet thinkers uncritically received Pew’s latest research on blogs. The study was largely based on data taken from a survey of 230 bloggers. Its authors, Amanda Lenhart [one of my blog authorities, to be sure] and Susannah Fox, raised such methodological caveats on page 1 of the study, but few of those who summarized and praised it made note of facts such as the relatively high margin of error of +/- 7%.
  • Dead 2.0’s reminder to “ keep your reality hat on, you might need it, because there’s a lot of hype, and seeing through the haze is not always easy.”
  • An inane, borderline offensive essay, What Shamu Taught Me, dominated the Times most e-mailed list for weeks. Jack Shafer (via Romenesko) explored reasons for its popularity.



blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger….[R]eal writing, however, writing meant to last, … involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

I found much of the criticism Lanier’s piece generated to be rather over-blown, and tend to agree with Jimmy Wales’ response:

My response is quite simple: this alleged “core belief” [“that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds,”] is not one which is held by me, nor as far as I know, by any important or prominent Wikipedians. Nor do we have any particular faith in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.

And from Chris Lydon, channeling Emerson (imagine that !):

Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considerate vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.


2 thoughts on “On the Wisdom of Sheep

  1. One response is that THE crowd is not wise but there are wise crowds. That is to say, the aggregation of everyone is not the greatest genius. But the aggregation of the right people looking at the right problem usually beats the view of any one of them (as I recall the book’s argument).

    I think the wisdom-of-the-crowd argument is often conflated with a rather extreme populism (and I can be accused of that myself, trumpeting populism against elitism when possible).

    But as so many of the examples you cite above teach us — especially Wikipedia — it does not take a large crowd to capture wisdom. We haven’t settled on whether to call this the 1 percent or 2 percent rule yet.

    But motive matters. Not everyone is writing articles on Wikipedia. Not every one should But those who think they can are and they are correcting each other and — with grudges, medications, and other odd factors excluded — it works.

    So every reader of Wikipedia is not wise (no offense intended). THE crowd is not wise. But Wikipedia is a collection of the work of many wise crowds. Those crowds are, indeed, small. But they are big enough.

  2. Oh, and you’re right, I should have mentioned the size of the study. But I take that as a given with all these studies. Pass the salt, pick the size of your grain.

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