Is there really wisdom in crowds?
23.10.09 | Peter Crawshaw
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.