Paul M. Banas on Consumer Insights, Marketing Research, and the Digital Media Landscape
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Category — Wisdom of Crowds

Web 2.0 And The Wisdom Of The Few

A large part of the promise of Web 2.0 has been the digital realization of the Wisdom of Crowds. However, it seems that unlike its “power to the people” promise, the Pareto Distribution of the 80/20 fame is alive and well across the icons of Web 2.0.

Thanks to a Stumbleupon link, I found this article on the myth of Web 2.0 democracy from Slate Magazine. In particular, the article calls out Digg and Wikipedia as being less “vox populi”, and more “vox oligarchi”.

Here are a couple of key quotes:

  • “1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits.”
  • “Last year, the top 100 Diggers submitted 44 percent of the site’s top stories. In 2006, they were responsible for 56 percent.”

That’s not to say that it’s all bad. Wikipedia is supposedly as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. As the Slate article concludes:

“Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.”

While this would seem to be a refutation of the democratic underpinnings of Web 2.0, it also points to a different perspective on the issue. Instead of judging a system based upon a simple on/off voting system, what if it were judged by level of participation.

I found this interesting graphic in a blog post by Gary Hayes at PersonalizedMedia.com that addresses the myth of non-participation in Web 2.0 social networks.

myth_participation.jpg

As you can see from the graphic, democracy on the web is measured by degrees of influence, which depends upon your level of participation in the total conversation.

So Web 2.0 is not exactly a simple democracy with one vote/one voice, but with different levels influence coming from individual commitment to participation and creation, it doesn’t have to be the tyranny of the few either.

February 25, 2008   No Comments

When crowds aren’t wise: the low-fat diet cascade.

So everything we know about fat and dieting is wrong. At least that’s what this article in the NY Times asserts, and its historical overview of how we got there is fascinating. Basically, the demonization of fat in our diets by the scientific community turns out to have been based upon dubious data and has never been corroborated by subsequent research. But because scientists were simply agreeing with other scientists without doing their own fact checking, something what social scientists call a “cascade” formed. And then the American public bought billions of dollars of low-fat foods and they still gained weight and had heart attacks.

As a big fan of James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I’m interested in how this article shows how supposedly wise crowds can also be dumb. In “The Wisdom of Crowds”, one of the key features of a wise crowd is independence of thought and opinion. Cascades form when something called “social proof” occurs, which Surowiecki defines as “the tendency to assume that if lots of people are doing something or believe something, there must be a good reason why”. Especially if those people are respected scientific peers.

A bigger question is whether our modern distributed data networks (i.e., the Web) will make cascades such as this more prevalent, or will diminish their longevity. My thought is that both are likely to occur. The fact that Web 2.0 diminishes the sole authority of “experts” (see Wikipedia) and mitigates the penalties for disagreement (read for peaceful conformity in any forum or chat room), the potential for false cascades to run unchecked for a long time will drop. However, the same medium which mitigates the length of false cascades also allows them to start fairly quickly to begin with.

Cascades are something that all who are interested in consumer trends, insights, and beliefs need to be aware of and be ready to react to. Especially if you want to know how long consumers will be interested in that low-fat cookie you have on the shelves.

October 12, 2007   1 Comment