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Is there really wisdom in crowds?

The internet enables anyone to publish anything instantly. It also lets everyone have a say. Content that exists on the web or in the real world will quickly find itself subject to comment from people online. It's a lot like flies vomiting on every piece of food in the kitchen.

 

According to one recent theory, this snowballing of information and opinion is wholly positive. Tim O'Reilly, a poster-boy for the web 2.0 age, argues that book publishers ought to capitalise on the phenomena. The expanding cloud of content will be organised and ranked by the democracy of the web. Mass collaborative projects will produce bang up to date guides to any subject in a matter of hours.

I can see how crowd-sourcing is a powerful tool for whipping up technical manuals and reference books, and an interesting source of creativity too. But I don't think it has a place where quality of thought and expression is important, and this means most literature and literary criticism. As Evgeny Morozov, the academic and blogger who writes on the implications of the internet, lucidly pointed out, the self-assembled knowledge of the crowd is "usually neutral and value free. Assigning value to this knowledge is still expensive and cannot be automated".

The truth is that 99% of the stuff on the web is drivel, written by people with little experience in the area they're holding forth about. (Pauses and waits for brickbat blogs and Tweets to tell me I'm an idiot . . .)

Quantity is no substitute for expertise.

Newspaper and magazine circulation may have fallen since the rise of the internet, but it's fallen far less in areas of journalism where there is very palpable quality, specialist concentration, or both.

The same will become true online as content grows exponentially. To read gazillions of anonymous web contributions yourself will give you a headache and leave you confused. As good as Google or any search engine is at delivering relevant results, people will look to find "voices" on the net they can trust. People they can relate to and rely on to "editorialise" for them.

All of us look for guidance to form opinions and make decisions, and we look for "authenticity" in the source. Readers are no different. This is why reading thousands of book reviews doesn't help you figure out if you're going to enjoy a book, but a few trusted opinions might. Our goal at Lovereading is to be one of the useful "voices".

Richard and Judy have come and gone. Without a high-profile guide to the sometimes overwhelming choice of literature, it's possible many thousands more readers will look to the web for help. If we're lucky some actual book experts like Sarah Broadhurst and Julia Eccleshare will gather more followers.

Because, when it comes to literature, some views are more valuable than others.

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Ah, at last someone is addressing issues of quality - quality writing and expertise. It's all very well democratising writing, making it easy for anyone and everyone to get published through digital and self-publishing routes, but what about the quality of the writing? I won't be telling you you're an idiot, Mr Crawshaw.

This is pretty much the arguement from Andrew Keen's book 'Cult of the Amateur' http://bit.ly/4qiaKE

This spawned many discussions online and much vitriol - however one of the most productive was the debate between Keen and Emily Bell at the Guardian (http://bit.ly/3MLb37) I recommend all read the debate, I particularly like Emily's statement that:

"For some people cultural depravity started at the renaissance and hasn't let up since. Your timescale is more compressed, but your pessimism is just as misplaced. Is there anything that worries me about the digital age? This is like asking me if anything worries me about living in London; there is abuse, theft, fraud, unpleasant and illegal activities made widespread. But this is the inevitable outcome of millions of individuals - good and bad - interacting on a daily basis."

Katie Price: quality writing and expertise.

This is a timely riposte to the many voices urging us to replace the publishing industries with a button that just sends you to a random page of the internet each time you press it.

Am I wrong?

We once had a letter in The Bookseller calling for the sacking of the copyeditor who had submitted an advert to the magazine with an apostrophe missing. I think the letter may have been written in green ink. It's good to see that in a changing world some things remain the same.

Only on this site do we get such pedants as JK

And many people also value correct spelling. Much of what set the amateurs apart from the "pro" is knowing that "alot" is spelt "a lot".

While Kieron is right in that there are similarities between mine and Andrew Keen's arguments this really was only my starting point. For me the more important conclusion is that, like it or not, people do look to 'experts' online and in the real world to help them decide on the value of information. Alot of us have specific friends we turn to to help us choose everything from technology to clothes so I think, as Google makes more and more content available online, finding individual voices we trust will become vital if we don't want to waste valuable time. I will leave the debate about wether the internet is undermining our very existence to other people.

I'm with JK - 'a lot' is two words, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a waste of rations. Pedantry is picking people up for obvious typos, which happens a lot (see, how hard is that), but this is different.

Yes but this is not the subject of the piece and you have diverted the discussion because of your pedantary submission JK.

The trouble with the Internet is that the minimum price that it imposes on content is too high. Some texts are not worth $0, and a proper market mechanism that would establish the correct negative price has not yet been found.

Ah, at last someone is addressing issues of quality - quality writing and expertise. It's all very well democratising writing, making it easy for anyone and everyone to get published through digital and self-publishing routes, but what about the quality of the writing? I won't be telling you you're an idiot, Mr Crawshaw.

This is pretty much the arguement from Andrew Keen's book 'Cult of the Amateur' http://bit.ly/4qiaKE

This spawned many discussions online and much vitriol - however one of the most productive was the debate between Keen and Emily Bell at the Guardian (http://bit.ly/3MLb37) I recommend all read the debate, I particularly like Emily's statement that:

"For some people cultural depravity started at the renaissance and hasn't let up since. Your timescale is more compressed, but your pessimism is just as misplaced. Is there anything that worries me about the digital age? This is like asking me if anything worries me about living in London; there is abuse, theft, fraud, unpleasant and illegal activities made widespread. But this is the inevitable outcome of millions of individuals - good and bad - interacting on a daily basis."

Katie Price: quality writing and expertise.

This is a timely riposte to the many voices urging us to replace the publishing industries with a button that just sends you to a random page of the internet each time you press it.

While Kieron is right in that there are similarities between mine and Andrew Keen's arguments this really was only my starting point. For me the more important conclusion is that, like it or not, people do look to 'experts' online and in the real world to help them decide on the value of information. Alot of us have specific friends we turn to to help us choose everything from technology to clothes so I think, as Google makes more and more content available online, finding individual voices we trust will become vital if we don't want to waste valuable time. I will leave the debate about wether the internet is undermining our very existence to other people.

And many people also value correct spelling. Much of what set the amateurs apart from the "pro" is knowing that "alot" is spelt "a lot".

Only on this site do we get such pedants as JK

We once had a letter in The Bookseller calling for the sacking of the copyeditor who had submitted an advert to the magazine with an apostrophe missing. I think the letter may have been written in green ink. It's good to see that in a changing world some things remain the same.

Am I wrong?

I'm with JK - 'a lot' is two words, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a waste of rations. Pedantry is picking people up for obvious typos, which happens a lot (see, how hard is that), but this is different.

Yes but this is not the subject of the piece and you have diverted the discussion because of your pedantary submission JK.

The trouble with the Internet is that the minimum price that it imposes on content is too high. Some texts are not worth $0, and a proper market mechanism that would establish the correct negative price has not yet been found.