Ask the Audience?

Photo from "Audience" page on Wikipedia

Photo from “Audience” page on Wikipedia

There’s a bit on the old gameshow Who Wants to be a Millionnaire? where contestants can use one of three lifelines to try to get past a hard question. Their options are 50/50 (get rid of two of the four possible answers), Phone-a-Friend and Ask the Audience. Of these, Ask the Audience was usually the most effective because it seemed that, even when only a minority of the audience knew the answer, the people who were just guessing would end up divided between the three wrong answers and the right one would win out. This philosophy seems to be the most popular one on the internet when it comes to asking questions; people ignore the “proven” knowledge sources like Encyclopedia Britannica in favour of Wikipedia, get second opinions on their medical issues from WebMD instead of doctors and teens ask questions about sex and lifestyle decisions on Yahoo Answers instead of to their parents and teachers. Has this made society dumber, unhealthier or more likely to make bad decisions? There is no study proving it either way.

In my opinion, crowdsourced knowledge has not started to supplant expert opinions because people have more faith in it, but because it is more readily accessible. If people could just go to the doctor to talk about every minor ache and pain they had, WebMD would be out of business, but this would be a frivolous use of a doctors time even if there were not a shortage. In a similar way, Encyclopedia Britannica has always been a resource that charges people money to access it’s information, either in the form of buying a collection of encyclopedias or paying for it online. If it is free and immediate, people are willing to make do with lower quality; think about the number of really low quality mp3s on sites like thepiratebay. Much in the way I wrote my last blog on privacy in social media, resources like Wikipedia are such a convenience that people just don’t feel like putting in the effort to live without them again, so they learn to deal with the negative sides.

The negative sides of crowdsourced knowledge should be obvious. In Brown & Duguid’s The Social Life of Documents, they make reference to some of Stanley Fish’s ideas. Wikipedia is a document where many many social worlds interact, but all of them have their own way of understanding the information in Wikipedia; “Fish argues that there is in fact no right way to choose among alternatives…. for there to be a “right” way, there must be a standard and a judge external to all of the competing community-based alternatives. But there is no external fulcrum to move these social worlds that is not itself merely the internal standard of another social world.” Britannica has a bias, but it is accountable for how accurate its information is. The only reason it exists is because people believe it is right. What agenda do Wikipedia editors have? What qualifications to decide whether something is, or is not, correct? Fish’s argument could undercut both Britannica and Wikipedia, which would make them equal (a win for Wikipedia), but I think that it means that we just have to say which “external fulcrum” we find more trustworthy. I would say Britannica’s, but then, I haven’t used it in a lot of years and I use Wikipedia every day.

On the positive side, crowdsourced knowledge is a lot more flexible, and can be changed all the time as events change. Not having a really rigorous editing process makes this even faster.

This blog is getting long, but the last thing I’ll say is that while Wikipedia is a nonprofit, crowdsourced knowledge does not begin and end there; as Van Dijck & Nieborg point out, the idea of having the audience create content is not automatically a social good. Information and opinion can be manipulated very easily for commercial reasons: “Technological systems, such as labour relations and consumer positions, are implied increasingly rather than manifest.” These services are mostly provided to make someone money, and crowdsourcing is often a way for them to save money by not even having to make that content themselves, or be accountable when it is wrong. We will know things have gone very badly when WikiBritannica goes live.

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