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MANILA, Philippines - The rise of social media is wonderful, yet terrifying at times. New technologies allow for people to connect to one another and offer their thoughts and feelings on various subjects, from pictures of kittens to war reports.
This “wisdom of crowds,” as James Surowiecki put it, needs 4 things to make it different from an angry mob. There has to be a diversity of opinion, an independence of individual thought, an ability to call on specialized knowledge, and the existence of a mechanism that turns the collected opinions into a collective decision.
If you take these 4 elements into the online space, it can allow for the emergence of crowdsourced wisdom: a wisdom that can be far greater than the individual opinions that created it.
To demonstrate how pervasive this crowdsourced wisdom is, take a quick look at your favorite social network, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Make an open call for thoughts on a topic you want to know about, and then leave it for half a day or so.
By the time you return, the people you’re connected to will most likely have sent you some information from their viewpoint. They may have also posted opinions, helpful or otherwise. They may have sent in links, or words of support for your plans, or even an honest message of disagreement with your idea. The process of gathering those thoughts from people is one form of crowdsourcing, and it’s a very powerful tool, on personal, commercial, and even political levels.
On a personal level, the emergence of crowdsourced wisdom validates individuals as being able to impact the community around them, for good or ill.
The popular social news site Reddit, as an example of crowdsourced wisdom, allows users to provide information, commentary, jokes, pictures, or videos about topics within specific communities known as subreddits. The /r/GetMotivated subreddit, for instance, allows “redditors” (members of Reddit) to post inspiring nuggets of wisdom, from simple posters to inspiring articles, to motivate readers into positive action. The /r/AskReddit subreddit allows users to pose a question or hypothetical situation to other redditors, letting them chime in with their own answers to the question and thus add to a body of entertaining and sometimes useful commentary that people around the world can read.
At the same time, other aspects of Reddit are less savory. One well-publicized case is that of Gawker revealing the identity of a reddit troll who posts pornographic or disturbing images on the social media site and the subsequent backlash against the troll by the public, both within some parts of Reddit and without.
On a commercial level, the idea of crowdsourced wisdom has taken off, as numerous sites now exist that gather the wisdom of the crowd regarding various products to give consumers more insight and influence the potential earnings of various products.
Culinary connoisseurs have Zagat for reviews on various restaurants. Goodreads allows users to submit reviews for books. For music, movies, TV shows, and video games, Metacritic is the mecca for aggregated professional and user reviews. Sites like Amazon and Epinions also allow shoppers to review the products they’ve purchased to inform potential future buyers. In the Philippines, Kristn is slowly growing as a resource for informative opinions on products, places, and services, and Rappler also tries to gain insight on the aggregated emotion of its articles through the Mood Meter.
Despite the usefulness of these websites, some practices have also made discernment of insights difficult for commercial ventures. A practice known as review-bombing is one practice standard among incensed groups seeking to drive the user ratings of other products down or show their anger towards public personalities. Sponsored content - basically paid reviews or opinions on products made by famous personalities or online opinion leaders – also obscure the vision of authentic opinions versus paid advertisements.
Commercial ventures sometimes choose to fight back against vested interests in user reviews. In the literary world, Amazon has recently begun deleting reviews by authors on other authors’ books, saying the company does “not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product.” Against the organized weight of the crowdsourced organism, however, that may prove to be a costly, yet unproductive, venture.
On a political level, some politicians realize the value of gaining the positive opinion of a mass of people, be it people in their own country or not. Newly re-elected American President Barack Obama was an excellent example of this.
Two months before the elections, he held an “Ask Me Anything” session over Reddit, discussing things from his favorite basketball player (Michael Jordan) to his opinions on Internet freedom. During the elections, Obama also urged Americans on Reddit to go out and vote, regardless of political leanings. On November 7, he followed through on his announcement on his Reddit AMA that he would thank the people who supported him by going to his campaign headquarters to thank the campaigners for their hard work.
The wisdom of the crowd is perhaps a strange beast. It is equal parts informative and entertaining, clear in its intention to inform but clouded by vested interests and online rage. Moreover, it exists online as an entity comprised of individuals and cells of communities, connected by the internet, and powered by a collected, rather than a collective, will. Much like how we have evolved as humans, perhaps this creature of thoughts will emerge to be something far greater than we can imagine.
When it does, we’ll all be talking about it. - Rappler.com
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