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Famous for Being Famous

—Sara 28.02.08

What I’ve learned from this week’s reading is that wikis are wonderful but they don’t measure up to the utopian ideals bestowed upon them by wiki worshipers. For some things, wiki wisdom is great. For others, the wisdom of the collective is really bad. Jaron Lanier, Chris Wilson, and Matt Barton discuss important philosophical and functional shortcomings and misconceptions of wikis and wiki wisdom. Their perspectives are important—knowing the limitations of the collective wisdom helps all Internet users evaluate projects like wikis and leverage their unique capabilities.

The philosophy behind wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies resonates with me: non-hierarchical consensus decision-making, equal access and participation, the people rule ... Reading about the philosophy and operation of PageRank, for example, should make my heart sing: The Google algorithm “ … relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. … PageRank results from a “ballot? among all the other pages on the World Wide Web about how important a page is. A hyperlink to a page counts as a vote of support (Wikipedia “PageRank?).?

If the philosophy of PageRank and the wiki is so lofty and honorable, why does it make me think of Paris Hilton? After reading Lanier’s article, I see the connection. Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. She’s not uniquely talented, smart or especially pretty but if she were a Web page, she would get a lot of “votes.? In the logic of PageRank, that makes her important and valuable.

The phenomenon of Ms. Hilton illustrates Lanier’s argument about the collective wisdom: sometimes it’s really stupid. Tools like wikis assume that consensual processes yield incremental improvements to their resulting products (Lanier “Digital Maosim? pg. 4). In reality, collectivism does not guarantee continuous improvement or quality or authority. That’s why Wikipedia isn’t an acceptable for academic research. That’s why Paris Hilton is famous despite being uninteresting and unimportant.

Lanier warns us that blind faith in the wisdom of the collective is dangerous. He doesn’t have to invoke Maoism to appreciate the negative machinations of the “hive? mentality however. It is evident in the degradation of media and culture treated “collectively.? Lanier argues for example, that digital collectives like Wikipedia and aggregators, in particular, have the effect of averaging content, eliminating the highs and lows, the controversial and unique (Lanier “Digital Maosim? pg. 8). The result is banality or worse—Lanier cites American Idol, popurls. The problem is, quality is by definition never average. Moreover, participation in online collectives is usually anonymous. Consequently, Lanier contends, personal voice and the subtleties that give language full meaning disappear along with authenticity, authority and accountability (Lanier “Digital Maosim? pg. 4). He concludes that “The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters, but it is bad when taste and judgment matter (Lanier “Digital Maosim? pg. 9).?

Chris Wilson augments Lanier’s views, arguing that even exemplary online collectives such as Wikipedia and Digg are neither wise nor collective. He reports that almost all social media sites are controlled by a minority of users and/or designated administrators. In many cases, a small group of the most active participants author the majority of the site’s content. Algorithms tend to favor the most devoted users while magnifying the disproportionate amount of control a tiny elite has over content and rankings. Administrators also adjust algorithms for specific ends in addition to regulating content on an ongoing basis. In practice, Wilson concludes, “ … it is a mistake to assume [these sites owe their] success to the wisdom of the online crowd (Wilson “The Wisdom? pg. 1).?

Matt Barton seems to have come to terms with the contradictions and shortcomings of the wiki way and offers very practical advice on the best uses of wikis. Although he accepts Lanier’s criticism that wikis abolish the notion of authorship and personal voice, his general rule is a more positive: “projects that emphasize authorship or require protection are not proper wiki applications (Barton “Embrace?5.21.04).? Accordingly, Barton rules out using a wiki for creative writing projects, portfolios, editorials or rhetorical argumentation. Projects well-suited to the wiki way include encyclopedias, bibliographies, handbooks or textbooks, or any type of document authored by a group.

Barton’s perspective is a welcome answer to the disillusionment Janier or Wilson might provoke. Although wikis and the collective wisdom do not add up to the “shining examples of Web democracy? they promise, they are well worth preserving (Wilson “The Wisdom? pg. 1).? Internet users need to understand what wikis do well and what they don’t. Knowing the limitations of the collective wisdom helps all Internet users evaluate projects like wikis and leverage their unique capabilities. In the process, we may all learn something about collaboration and digital democracy.

Barton, Matt. “Embrace the Wiki Way!? 21 May, 2004.
Lanier, Jaron. “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.? Edge: The Third Culture. 30 May, 2006.
Wilson, Chris. “The Wisdom of the Chaperones.? Slate.com. 22 February, 2008.
Tapscott and Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio Hardcover, 2006.


Hello Sara, thanks for your comment on my post. I'm glad you're on board with fun. It's great to hear! I noticed on your post how you typed the date (28.02.08). In my native background, that's how we date (with day first, month, then year). Moving on to what you had written in your post, "For some things, wiki wisdom is great. For others, the wisdom of the collective is really bad." I think with all things, there are both good and not-so-good aspects to everything. I think I had written this before to someone's post . . . take alcohol for example--alcohol may add to a social setting, but in excess, a negative result could be drunken debauchery. Also, it was interesting (and dead-on!) what you had written about Paris Hilton, "Paris Hilton is famous for being famous." I think that is so true. She is a heiress of the Hilton family, the Hilton hotel chain. Dead on!

Your points about the failings of collective knowledge/wisdom are well taken. We're at an transitional stage with all this, still evolving out of a system of authoritative, definitive content from or based on set sources and facts. The hybridization of this with the open collaborative movement hasn't developed very far yet, but we can see the seeds of it growing as tolerance drops for poorly cited and inaccurate material on Wikipedia and other public, collaborative information sites. Similarly, more expert contributers, or at least those willing to do decent research, appear to be elevating the quality of content in many areas. It's hard to say how it will develop, but in any case it would seem that the burden will remain for some time on the reader (almost alone) to be wary about accepting the information they find via wikis and online in general.