The cult of the amateur – part 2.

I thought it would be interesting to see what Andrew Keen‘s views are on social news sites; in fact I try to dissect here the relevant passages (pp92-96) from chapter 3 – “Truth and lies” in his book I mentioned so many times already.

Keen does not distinguish between social news and social bookmarking sites. I guess you could argue for the conceptualization of putting these sites into the same basket, but I for one prefer not to, because of their different purposes and methods of use. I think that a deeper analysis should be mindful of these differences, even though the principle – aggregating and filtering previously available content – is admittedly the same in both cases.

According to Keen, this principle “cannot be relied upon to keep us informed.” (I think what he really means is that it should not be relied upon.)

When our individual intentions are left to the wisdom of the crowd, our access to information becomes narrowed, and as a result, our view of the world and our perception of truth becomes dangerously distorted. (p94)

There are two pieces of evidence offered to back up this claim. First, says Keen, citing a study by the Wall Street Journal, there are only a handful of individuals who have real influence over what gets published on social news sites – so in fact they are only seemingly democratic. Second, there is little or no protection on such sites against influential members pushing a dishonest agenda (e.g. promoting unworthy news items in exchange of financial benefits).

There is something missing from the first argument; or rather something is implied here. These sites do not accurately represent the view of the crowd as such, goes the argument, but that of a few influential members. Since the crowd is supposed to be, in general, ignorant (cf. monkeys), this is supposed to be a good thing – unless the few influential members lack the expertise and / or moral responsibility that is, for Keen, traditionally associated with professional newspaper editors. Which, apparently, they do.

Indeed, the above mentioned study by the WSJ confirms that formal expertise or experience is not a prerequisite for becoming an influential member of a social news site community. Some of the most influential members of such sites are students, and even a 12-year old Canadian hockey-fan could become one of the most important contributors on Reddit.

However, saying that

The Wall Street Journal’s research reveals that these sites reflect the preferences of the few rather than the “wisdom” of the masses (p95)

implies that there is a difference between what “the few” think is worthy of attention and what “the masses” consider so. But the thing is that the influence of the few depends on the acknowledgement of the masses. If something is not popular with the crowd (however vaguely we understand “popular” and “crowd” here), it is not going to get to the front page of social news sites.

The point is still important: social news sites are democratic in theory – BUT not all users are active in the same way, and those with a larger network of “friends” (online contacts who get notified of one’s activity on a social news site) are likely to have an advantage over those who are, perhaps because of the perceived extremities of their views, marginalized.

The same can be said about the second argument – the fact that social news sites can be rigged. I have dealt with this issue in my MA thesis, looking at Wired’s experiment to game Digg as a short case study. The outcome: yes, it is theoretically possible to artificially increase the perceived popularity of news articles – even though it is not necessarily easy, given the fact that social news sites try to monitor and counter rigged votes and article submissions -, BUT once an item gets on the front page, and thus receives increased attention – and thus is put to the test in front of a larger part of the community -, it can only stay there for a significant time if it is indeed judged worthy by the crowd as such.

The final argument (?) by Keen against social news sites is puzzling at best. It goes like this (emphasis by me).

But even if there was a thing as the wisdom of the crowd, should we trust it? The answer, of course, is no. History has proven that the crowd is not often very wise. After all many unwise ideas – slavery, infanticide, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Britney Spears – have been extremely popular with the crowd. This is why the arbiters of truth should be the experts – those who speak from a place of knowledge and authority – not the winners of a popularity contest. (pp95-96)

I’m not sure with which crowds was the war in Iraq “extremely popular”, but even if that was the case, insinuating that various, supposedly expert-controlled mainstream media organs had nothing to do with trying to popularize it (on the contrary!), seems rather odd. (I guess we all remember staff of Fox News and editors of the Daily Telegraph marching on the streets alongside Damon Albarn, holding placards that say “Don’t Bomb Iraq”…)

Oh yes, that’s just another thing; what’s missing from both Keen’s and the WSJ’s account is a look and analysis of the sources. Social news sites aggregate previously created content, so perhaps it would be wise to to examine what this content is, along with who it is actually submitted by.

…which is one thing I intend to do in my research. And some further thoughts that (re-)occurred to me while writing this post: one thing is that a whole lot depends on how exactly people use social news sites – instead of or alongside with traditional media. Another is that I believe that it would also be important to know how the size of the community affects the flow of news – the popularity contest – within a given site.

I’ll continue this line of thought with discussion what James Surowiecki has to say about “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

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