Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Wisdom of Meritocracy

Last week I wrote about one of the inherent problems with brain-dead content gathering systems like Digg - they're easy to game, because they're dumb by design. But this is actually a bigger Web 2.0 issue; there's a mythology of the "wisdom of crowds" informing the ideas behind a lot of social networking and tagging that's fundamentally flawed.

(And which is not, I should note, what James Surowiecki actually meant by that phrase in his very smart book on the subject.)

Continuing on this general topic, Mark Cahill at Vario Creative talks about the "answer people" in social media - that small number who actually provide most of the useful content. He raises this point while commenting on some new research on the topic (which I haven't reviewed myself yet, but am going to), and wonders:

So what is the ramification for the new trend towards social networking? It certainly suggests that you will need a means to identify, motivate and hold onto these ‘answer people.” The truth is, that while social networking tends to carry a “mobocratic” stigma, we need to firmly embrace meritocracy to succeed.

Mark has more to say, and you should click over there and have a look.

If social networking carries that "mobocratic" stigma Mark refers to, it's in large part a chosen stigma. Digg brags about its lack of editors, YouTube is about broadcasting yourself without any gatekeepers, tech gurus traipse around Silicon Valley talking about the wonderful "democratized" future of media, and so on. Whether this makes any sense or actually will enrich us is not something that rarely gets discussed; it's an article of faith that this will be great.

And so it's fascinating to see networks self-organizing into meritocracies. Could it be that it's because this is what people naturally prefer?

I'm not trying to channel Andrew Keen, who's selling a bunch of books these days by reducing this topic to a simplistic "internet bad!" rant (and in doing so, taking a basic idea about which he's correct and undermining it through shallow arguments). There is value in disrupting the established meritocracy, which can become so ossified that it offers up Britney Spears, Fox News, and reality television as its editorially-approved, gatekeeper-checked outputs.

But what is the next step in all this? It's great to see people considering that question. What new meritocracy emerges, and will it serve us well?

This is, I think, the big topic of social media in the coming years.


Mark Cahill said...

I could not agree more!

We've spent so much time trying to remove the human element from search and networks, that we've reached a brick wall. Systems based purely on votes or algorithmically derived, as in search results can be gamed by services like pay per post.

We've got to get a validated human element back into social networks and search.

Thanks for the link!

Mary Schmidt said...

When I first started thinking about blogging, I asked my blog coach "But, what - ahem - about all the stupid people?" She told me not to worry too much as, "water finds its own level" - and she's right.

Somehow, in the Internet wilderness, like manages to find like (which is, of course, both good and bad) and we always have the opportunity to wander off in a new direction and "meet" new people, see new viewpoints, if we'll just take the time to look.

All that technology has gone whack on ratings anyway (which is nothing more than a numbers game in any case - quantity not quality. I know that very few people that list me in - say - the Z-list have actually visited my blog.) As Mark noted in another post, Technorati is getting really goofy as they try to offset splogs and such. My "authority" goes up, down, around and some days makes little to no sense.

So, I depend, as I always have, on meetings friends through friends, other blogs through blogging buddies I trust, and so on.

That's after all, how I got to "know" both of you.