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Lost in the Crowdsourcing

May 19, 2010

As a serious consumer of both industrial and social media, my biggest frustration with the Internet is probably the literally overwhelming amounts of content available at such a breakneck pace. While the ocean of content may provide vast amounts of material for some excellent irreverence for protesting reverends, I worry about the possibility of drifting asea in the self-defined, self-referential and self-contained universe of teh Internets.

At first glance, you might say, “Rick, you’re just whinging about too much of a good thing. Grow up, quit being an internet beach bum, and just limit the amount you surf.” “Good advice,” I’d respond, “but I already comprehensively filter the information I receive through my arbitrarily defined social background and mores, my chosen and trusted sources of information, my own inherent media biases, handy filtering tools like Yahoo! Pipes and the hours in a day.”

At second glance, you might offer the rejoinder that, “You’re forgetting about the wisdom of crowds, Rick. Doesn’t the massive volume of input content only require adequately powerful processing of that information? If you can harness those crowds, they can be massive forces for good. Remember Ward Elliott’s crowdsourced statistical analysis of Shakespeare?”

I’d respond, “Sure, but what about the problem of possible pervasive and systematic errors committed by the population as a whole? Or totally subjective questions that aren’t susceptible to clear or distinct answers emerging? At that point, the static begins to drown out the signal. When one considers the nature of the way the entire Internet is structured, in the age of Google, the fact that the static might drown out the signal is a real threat to the way we consume content and even knowledge. Even if the crowd does produce some cynically hilarious results from time to time.”

“Sounds like you just need some content-curation in your life. Isn’t that what Apple is doing with its walled-garden approach? And if algorithms don’t work, you can always just turn to humans to do it for you.”

“Hmm, good points,” I’d concede. “But what about my own influence on other people, as a producer of information and content, and not just as a consumer? How am I to make any discernable mark when so many other people are doing the exact same thing? Aren’t I just as likely to get lost in the ocean of content in that respect? And isn’t that more troubling, at least from an existential point of view?”

“That’s a good point, but that’s mainly because your expectations may be artificially high if you’re weighing yourself on globalization’s winner-take-all scales,” you’d say. “When you’re just throwing out glass bottles into the sea with notes pleading for rescue scrawled onto them, like so many others do, there is a lot less of a chance of any of your notes being picked up, read, and appreciated for what it’s worth. It’s a risky proposition to lunge headlong into being a creator these days if you want to ‘make it big’ without any backup plan. You should try to communicate not with the harsh and unforgiving sea, but with a little group on an island.”

“So you’re saying, that if the problem is the size of the crowd, the counter-intuitive solution might just be to carve out a community that can help shield the signal from being drowned out by the static,” I’d conclude. “I guess you’re right; it can be lonely if you let yourself get lost in the crowd.”

“Yeah, you start having conversations with the voices inside your head.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Da Arab permalink
    May 19, 2010 5:31 pm

    So…um…the internet is too big to be the prom queen/king of, so just find your niche…uh… I mean, crowd.

    • slickricks permalink*
      May 20, 2010 4:46 am

      I didn’t mean to imply that the Internet is immune from the ordinary human dynamics of cult and popularity. Indeed, high school may be an extremely apt metaphor for the winner-take-all network effects that occur in certain online contexts. I guess my point was that the Internet-qua-high school has so many people in there to potentially impress or befriend that one rather rapidly hits diseconomies of scale when one tries to establish a connection with each and every one of them. It is more rewarding in such a context, to cultivate and intensify existing friendships rather than seek out marginal additional friendships that are devoid of real connection or meaning.

      So…um…yeah, you are correct.


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