When the net’s wisdom of crowds turns into an online lynch mob

Interesting article in The Observer today by James Harkin, author of the soon to be published Cyburbia: the Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are. It discusses how the internet’s great advantages – speed, access and shared communication – can also have drawbacks, as Richard Dawkins found out last week. It’s not hugely surprising that James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds meme has a flipside as the title of his book was a nod to Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds written over 160 years earlier. Since then there’s be a whole load of other popular delusions ending in tears, not least being the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Dotbomb. Who knows perhaps the hype surrounding Web 2.0 will in time also be seen as just another bubble, with ironically Surowiecki being one of the principle cheerleaders.

Given that Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, thus kick starting memetics, I couldn’t help but smile to read him being quoted in The Observer article, as follows:

“Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”

Funny because it’s not like groupthink is a new idea, and so it was also interesting to read James Harkin question whether online communities are inherently a good thing: a belief held by many evangelists of Web 2.0 technologies in much the same way that many economists believe that markets are inherently good things despite the current economic crisis:

“When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader.”

He also mentions an ‘intriguing experiment’ by three social network theorists at Columbia University that looks at how easily groupthink can occur in online communities, but perhaps more damning was the attempt he mentions by Penguin at mass co-creation of a novel, the output of which can at best only be described as mass-mediocrity!


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One Response to “When the net’s wisdom of crowds turns into an online lynch mob”

  1. Jaron Lanier talks about the failure of web 2.0 « debatorium Says:

    […] debatorium Just another WordPress.com weblog « When the net’s wisdom of crowds turns into an online lynch mob […]

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