It's Not Experts vs. Crowds; It's Picking The Right Tool For The Job

from the worthwhile-discussions dept

There have been a few stories lately that have caught my attention for both personal interest and professional reasons. These are articles that are setting up a dichotomy in web content between "the wisdom of the crowd" and "the wisdom of a few experts." The Washington Post had an article yesterday about a few companies that are trying to isolate the experts from the crowd and focus in on only their thoughts. Earlier this week, for no clear reason, there were a bunch of articles about Larry Sanger and his Citizendium effort to create a new version of Wikipedia that is "expert" edited. I say no clear reason because there have been press reports about Sanger's efforts for years. Hell, just a month ago there were a bunch of articles about it, which prompted a thoughtful response from Clay Shirky about the myth of expertise and why Citizendium will never work (and, following that, a good debate in the comments to Shirky's article). On a professional level, this interests me quite a bit, since our new Techdirt Insight Community is, to some extent, based on that same theory that you can do something quite powerful when you can isolate out some "experts."

However, it seems to be that the setup to this debate is pretty much wrong. It's not a case of the crowd vs. experts. In fact, most experts are a part of the various crowds as well. This has always been one of the problems I've had with typical complaints against Wikipedia where people trot out the brain surgery myth that trusting Wikipedia is like letting a totally inexperienced "crowd" perform brain surgery. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that there aren't any brain surgeons in the crowd, and that the expertise of those surgeons won't become clear pretty quickly. Secondly, it highlights the fallacy that if you use the "wisdom of the crowd" for one thing, you must use it for everything else. That's simply false. There are things where the wisdom of the crowd makes sense and there are others (like, for example, brain surgery) where you want an expert. No, we don't want our brain surgeons entirely trained off of Wikipedia... but we don't want them entirely trained off of the Encyclopedia Britannica either. The point is that you use the right tool for the right job.

So, when it comes to the Techdirt Insight Community, it's again a case of understanding the right tool for the right job. The companies using the community aren't doing so to get a broad representative sample of everyone. They're doing so to get the knowledge, wisdom and insight of a small group of people who can look at a situation and think it through, based on their experiences. It's not about coming to a central "truth" where a crowd can help you narrow in on an agreed upon point, but in getting valuable opinions of those who have a variety of perspectives, and being able to see the interplay among those different perspectives to help a company make important decisions or understand the more important nuances of news or trends that impact them. So, instead of thinking of this as the wisdom of crowds vs. the wisdom of experts, it's about understanding the job at hand and making sure you have the right tool for it. For certain things, letting the crowds make decisions works out very well, and for others, getting the insight and collective viewpoint of people with more expertise makes sense.


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  1.  
    identicon
    Stu, Oct 20th, 2006 @ 8:00pm

    It's Picking The Right Tool For The Job

    Amen, brother.

    "I'm all in favor of the democratic principle that one idiot is as good as one genius, but I draw the line when someone takes the next step and concludes that two idiots are better than one genius."
    Leo Szilard, inventor of nuclear fission and the inventor, with Enrico Fermi, of the nuclear reactor.

     

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  2.  
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    mousepaw, Oct 21st, 2006 @ 6:16am

    Right tool

    Who would decide whether to call upon a crowd or an expert? Would it always be obvious?

    Maybe the Citizedium is just another tool in the crib and whether it "works" or not, as in being the superlative choice, it probably has a use. It seems that the people re-writing are just griping about quality and if they want to produce and use their own version, who's to say their wrong? Perhaps, with society "dumming down," they feel a need to "raise the bar" by using experts.

    Am I missing your point? It seems that most choices are subjective and as such, a person's personal perspective, common sense and propensity for sheep-like behavior will shove them in their own direction for answers (that meet their criteria), right or wrong.

    You still have the same choice as before: target your market.

     

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  3.  
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    Stu, Oct 21st, 2006 @ 8:17am

    choices are subjective but facts are facts

    "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
    Daniel Patrick Moynihan - Author, Professor, US Senator

     

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  4.  
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    pure.Caprice, Oct 21st, 2006 @ 10:32am

    A Nail Needs a Hammer

    I'm sure that each individual in a crowd is a fine person, but collectively I wouldn't trust them enough to make toast, let alone anything important.

    You should use the right tool for the right job: a nail for a hammer, an expert for a problem.

     

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  5.  
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    Stu, Oct 21st, 2006 @ 11:07am

    nail for a hammer

    Funny but true:
    To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

     

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  6.  
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    pure.Caprice, Oct 21st, 2006 @ 3:42pm

    Re: nail for a hammer

    Yeah, yeah. Off topic, but true. That one's a different discussion altogether.

     

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  7.  
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    Mousepaw, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 5:40am

    Re: can't choose your facts

    But you can choose to whom you listen. Everyone has a different set of "facts." You can do anything you want with statistics, for example. We do have a couple of universal truths...

     

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  8.  
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    Stu, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 7:14am

    Re: can't choose your facts by Mousepaw

    Mousepaw my friend,

    To believe that everyone can have their own set of facts, is to believe that nothing is real.

    The dictionary says:

    FACT:
    - the body of real things, events
    - something that has actual existence
    - an actual occurrence
    - actuality

    Statisitics are used to INTERPRET what a collection of facts are saying. They are often unreliable because of the agenda of the those putting them forward, and sometimes it's just an incomplete study.

    Please don't equate facts with opinions or statistics.

    Who to listen to?
    Hear all - question everything - decide for yourself.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 12:28pm

    Re: Re: can't choose your facts by Mousepaw

    Thank you.

     

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  10.  
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    mousepaw, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 12:34pm

    Back to Stu - Thanks

    Thanks. I do have difficulty weeding out the facts because I am finding in my old age that the more I know, the more I know I don't know.

     

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  11.  
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    Peter Hitchmough, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 3:56pm

    Picking your way through the crowd

    As usual, a very readable article - I'm beavering away inside Citizendium myself. The points you raise on how to deliver the best both from the crowd and the experts are valid, and such debate is active in CZ.

    It's clear that there's a great cloud of humanity out there who are willing and able to contribute to the knowledge base and CZ plans to equip expert subject editors to squeeze the very best content out of what has been submitted.

    The crunch is a) how and b) how well, will this work?

    I really think Larry's ideas are worth a shot. The reason they are resurgent now is that he's getting a body of people off their backsides and onto the project. We're entering a private pilot now to try out technical tools and policy vision and implementations. Soon a real 'beta' should appear.

    The real plus (and minus) is that we have the entire Wikipedia content as information seedcorn. How do you fancy manually editing approximately 3,700,000 articles?

    I hope Citizendium soon has something useful to share with TechDirt.

    --Peter

     

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  12.  
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    Sudeep, Oct 22nd, 2006 @ 7:42pm

    Re: It's Picking The Right Tool For The Job

    Agreed~!

     

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  13.  
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    DragonTear, Oct 23rd, 2006 @ 7:49am

    Re: Re: can't choose your facts by Mousepaw

    To quote Descates and The Evil Daemon:

    "If we cannot be certain that our senses do not deceive us, then we cannot know anything with certainty.
    We cannot know whether or not our senses deceive us.
    Therefore, we cannot know anything about the world."

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 23rd, 2006 @ 8:25am

    Wikipedia is revisionist history written by big government and big businesss and dumb@$$ kids.

     

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  15.  
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    Stu, Oct 23rd, 2006 @ 3:14pm

    Back at you again Mousepaw

    "Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality."
    - Bertrand Russell

    Regards,
    Stu

     

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  16.  
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    mousepaw, Oct 23rd, 2006 @ 4:37pm

    To DragonTear and Stu

    Touche.

     

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  17.  
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    Random student, Oct 24th, 2006 @ 5:28am

    I love Wikipedia. I don't necessarily trust it.

    I'm a law student. I do research. In law, especially American law, everything has to have a source. (A standard joke is that a scholarly legal paper cannot even assert that the sun rises in the east without a citation to a source.)

    I would never, ever, ever use Wikipedia as a primary source for anything. But wow is it a good way to get background on things I didn't know about before! Not so much in law (though even there I have occasionally gotten useful pointers) but in lots of other fields. If I need to know how reliable something is I can always look it up elsewhere, but without Wikipedia it might have been difficult to ever find the name I am looking up in another source, and I might have had a harder time getting the "big picture" that that name fits into.

    And of course Wikipedia has the quality that the entire web has, that it can cover subjects that wouldn't make it into print. The last paper copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica I saw was 30 volumes. Its editors must be selective or it would be 300. Wikipedia doesn't have that problem. Neither does an online group of experts, but they have other constraints, such as time, that are less of a problem for the zillions of Wikipedia authors.

    In short, I think I am agreeing: the Wikipedia crowd, or any other crowd, is not always the right tool, but sometimes it is.

     

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