The Folly of the Crowd
There is much excitement about the potential for Web 2.0, in particular what is known as the Wisdom of the Crowd. Wikipedia becomes the repository of all knowledge, Google search statistics are the zeitgeist of the times and MySpace is the face of the world. Page rank is a measure of authority. Corporations appeal to the public for solutions to problems. The ivory tower is replaced by the democracy of the commons; the proclamations of the cathedral displaced by the hubbub of the bazaar. Not so fast.
The Crowd listens to the wisdom of Oprah and reads USA Today. The Crowd doesn’t understand how their status-defining mobile phone works. The Crowd believes in Roswell and psychics and crystals. The Crowd litters the Web with blogs nobody reads; inane twitterings bereft of insight, the daily drivel that was once mercifully hidden away in a diary. The Crowd looks to rock stars and movie stars for leadership.
Majority does not equal truth. Voting is good for social decision making but not for advancing knowledge. The majority once wanted to burn witches. The majority seems to think alternative medicines are superior to pharmaceuticals. The majority thinks the outcome of Survivor is important. The majority mocked Darwin and were stumped by Einstein.
It isn’t even a majority anyway that fills the forums and blogs and wikis. It is the voice of a fanatical few. Either they hold views so strongly they are motivated to work on the content, or they have no life and spend all their time on a computer. Either way they do not represent the views of the majority. They represent the views of extremists and social outsiders. This explains why some of the most successful blogs are blogs about blogging.
The Wisdom of the Crowd is the final triumph of post-modernism: the belief that any position is as valid as another; that it is all relative to the people involved; that there is no absolute truth; that shamanism has as much to tell us as science.
As a result, the Crowd equates fame with wisdom. The views of someone who has spent a decade absorbing the accumulated wisdom of all civilisation (and passed stringent tests to prove they have succeeded) are no more important than the views of a high-school dropout who can play an electric guitar, or a drug-crazed tart who can act.
The Crowd also fails to discriminate between sources of information. Google pulls up webpages from learned institutions intermingled with the ravings of the lunatic fringes. Creationists, conspiracy theorists, new agers, nutters and racists thrive on the web, and the Crowd laps it up.
Wikipedia may be more extensive than Encyclopaedia Britannica but it will never be as authorative. Google gives us access to information but not to knowledge, let alone wisdom. MySpace and FaceBook and Wordpress do precisely nothing to advance the human race. Hailing the Wisdom of the Crowd only cheapens the Wisdom of Civilisation. Wisdom belongs among the guardians who have preserved and built it from generation to generation, the academics; not spattered across a billion websites like textbook pages thrown to the wind.
The internet has shredded knowledge. It has torn it up into digestible little pages and blended an amorphous mass that Google dips into almost at random. We don’t need to learn or remember or think because we can pull up an answer on demand. Nobody studies textbooks any more, or even reads journals. Information rains down in the patter of RSS feeds or flicks past in email headlines or babbles in sound-bite videos or scrolls by as news-pages and blog headings: so much information from so many people who know so little.
Just like me and this article.
This is not to say that Web 2.0 is a Bad Thing, nor does it argue that community involvement is counter-productive. The message here is to avoid putting the Crowd on a pedestal as some font of wisdom. It is an unreliable unpredictable superstitious mosh-pit of ideas and data: potentially fruitful if managed; potentially dangerous if idealised and idolised.
Next time we will discuss how we might address some of these issues. For now, this is a collaborative site - I look forward to your thoughts.