The Wiki Beehive
Generally Wikipedia is praised for it’s collective driven overload of information.
“Britannica’s biggest errors are of omission, not commission. It’s shallow in some categories and out of date in many others. And then there are the millions of entries that it simply doesn’t–and can’t, given its editorial process–have. But Wikipedia can scale to include those and many more. Today Wikipedia offers 860,000 articles in English – compared with Britannica’s 80,000 and Encarta’s 4,500. Tomorrow the gap will be far larger.” (1)
The belief in Wikipedia is widespread. Together, people seem to be capable of showing great wisdom.
“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them” (2)
Different opinions exist around collective intelligence. Opposite to the success of wisdom of the crowd we have the Hive Mind, a theory about collectives where individual voices are suppressed in the interest of the collective as a whole. Jaron Lanier gives a fine example in his 2006 essay Digital Maoism; Lanier’s Wikipedia entry says he is a filmmaker, although he made only one (very bad, after his own saying) film in the early nineties. When he changes his own Wiki page into saying that he is not a filmmaker but a scholar/journalist, the entry is always corrected back to filmmaker by Wikipedia users thinking he is a filmmaker.(3) This of course frustrates Lanier and illustrates the power the collective holds over individual users.
Individual users make entries, that wisdom gradually spreads and eventually becomes the truth for the many users who consult Wikipedia as the oracle of new technology. A mighty collective of believers crushes the voices of individual users holding the wisdom to correct false entries. Empowering the collective does not necessarily mean empowering the individual; the independence of the user gets disrupted. “People neglect what they know and pay attention instead to the signals given by others.” (4)
In psychology group conformity is described as the process by which an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are influenced by others, which results in direct or overt social pressure. Conformity even occurs by implied presence of others, when people aren’t actually present, such as online. People conform to feel safe within a group, deflecting the risk of social rejection. (5)
Lanier explores this phenomenon even further when he warns us: ”History has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty have mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist and religious […] I don’t see why there couldn’t be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism” (3)
We’ll have to find a way of using the collective valuing the individual user. As human beings, we don’t want to lose ourselves in a collective, but at the same we seem to feel so safe being there. A weird opposition…
1. Chris Anderson, The Probabilistic Age, 2005.
2. Surowiecki, James, The Wisdom of Crowds, New York: Double Day, 2004.
3. Lanier, Jaron, Digital Maoism, EDGE Magazine, May 2006.
4. Sunstein, Cass. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
5. Wikipedia, Conformity. This is ironic, I know, but I also feel safe in the womb of collective intelligence.