Raising the Least Common Denominator

Brian Gillooly, the editor-in-chief of Optimize magazine, sent me an email after the CTC conference:

"One thing that I wanted to raise, which I did at the MIT CIO Symposium the day before… was the concept of the common denominator with E 2.0 (and Web 2.0). One of the gentlemen in your session made the comment about E 2.0 allowing "decisions from on high … or down low, for that matter" and I called out a little too loudly, "Bingo!" I had asked the panel at MIT if there was a concern that E 2.0 risks "dumbing down" the organization, because while it does allow for good ideas to trickle up from anywhere in the organization that otherwise may not have, I think it also enables more "common denominator" suggestions, input, or decisions to temper the overall organization. I used, for example, what passes for entertainment or content on Web 2.0 places like MySpace, YouTube, or the like. It’s downright scary. By extension, can’t that sort of "common denominator-ism" pervade the enterprise over time? You made the point that a Wiki editor could find him or herself in a very powerful position in an organization, and I agree with that, but I would think the masses could have great sway here."

This is a good question; it’s a topic of current debate on Web, and it’s clearly relevant for the enterprise.  The last thing any company wants to do is set up an environment that contributes to dumbing down.

So which is it?  Is the IQ of an online group that of its dumbest member, the sum of all IQs, or something in between?  Do online communities aggregate knowledge or dissipate it?

Some examples are pretty clear:  markets work, in part because of the power of the price mechanism, the incentives to perform well, and the availability of clear, simple, and continuous feedback.  But what about the Web 2.0 content generation and aggregation platforms like the ones Brian mentions?  Some of them are clearly popular and big, but is their content any ‘good?’

Most of Everything is Bad…

It’s a safe bet that almost everyone you ask will say that most of it is pretty bad.  But most people, I bet, would also say that they found some great stuff on YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, etc.  Some of this ‘great stuff’ is at the level of mindless diversion or guilty pleasure, but not all of it.  I came across some fine pictures of the last solar eclipse on Flickr.

True, I find that most of what’s on these platforms is bad, uninteresting, trashy, and/or poorly done.  But I feel the same way when I go through a bookstore, walk along a magazine rack, scan movie listings, or peruse almost any sample from any publishing industry.  In other words, it’s simply not news that there’s a lot of junk out there.  Given freedom of expression, relatively low barriers to entry, and non-uniformity of tastes, how could we expect anything else?

… But So What?

The junk becomes a problem if it obscures the good stuff, or if it makes us such lousy consumers of content that we become morons or dupes.  Let’s take the first problem first.  Several earlier posts have concentrated on the mechanisms by which the cream of the online content rises to the top; they include links, tags, powerful search, RSS, and automated tools like Flickr clusters.  These are extremely powerful and precise tools.  They help each of us define the signals we’re interested in, then separate them from the noise.  

The One(?) Problem

But the fact that current search technology relies heavily on backlinks can give rise to a problem, best illustrated with an example.  I want my medical advice to come from the ‘medical establishment’ and to be based on research like double-blind clinical trials.  And like lots of people, I start any new quest for information at the Google search box.  But when I typed ‘herbal remedies’ into the box just now, the first non-paid search result Google returned was an online store, the second from a gardener’s guide, the third a guide of uncertain provenance, etc.  It seemed that only one of the first ten search results was going to be useful to me, given my preferences about sources.  This is because most people who discuss herbal remedies on the Web and link to other sites evidently don’t share my preferences.

My point here is not that most Web content about herbal remedies is wrong or bad.  That’s a judgment I’m not qualified to make.  My point is simply that there’s not a good way right now to limit my search results to sites that do have the right qualifications, however I define them.  Current search results are the result of a huge ongoing Web-wide popularity contest.  It’s a method that works surprisingly well, but it doesn’t give me what I want when I search for information about herbal remedies.

A combination of search and tagging, a la Google Co-op might be able to do better.  Google Co-op, which is still in beta, "is a platform which enables you to use your expertise to help other users find information" according to the company (if that’s not a Web 2.0-style explanation, I don’t know what is).  I’d be very grateful if the AMA someday used it or a similar tool to tag the herbal remedy sites they consider to be solid or authoritative.  I’d confine my searches to include only those sites.  People who wanted their search results to exclude information from the medical establishment would do just about the opposite.  And we’d all get what we want from the Web.  The signal would rise above the noise, even though we defined the signal very differently.  

Wikipedia and Thomas Jefferson to the Rescue

After Google didn’t give me what I was looking for within one page of results, I went to Wikipedia and typed in ‘herbal remedies.’  I found the entry somewhat scattershot and a bit of a Frankenstein —  obviously stitched together from the contributions of many individuals.  But I also found it very informative, and a good starting point.  It linked, for example, to an editorial from NEJM on the risks of alternative medicine, which was exactly the kind of information I was looking for.  It also linked to the Website of the National Herbalists Association of Australia, which is probably exactly the kind of information someone else is looking for. 

Reading the article reminded me why I’m such an admirer of Wikipedia.  Its community had managed to generate a helpful and informative entry on a controversial topic.  The community’s insistence on a neutral point of view for articles was a key ingredient for this good outcome.  Wikipedia demonstrates that people can come together and, instead of shouting at each other about how herbal remedies are either the only way forward for humanity or a huge ongoing scam, generate something that educates and helps other people.

This is the opposite of dumbing down.  And one of the main themes of this blog is that this kind of productive collaboration should be easier within Intranets than across the Internet.  Enterprise 2.0, in other words, should be at least as powerful as Web 2.0.  The informal and formal leaders of a company have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to shape both the processes of collaboration and their outcomes.  If the digital collaboration platform turns into a shouting match or a random collection of junk they really have no one to blame but themselves.  

There is ample evidence that online communities can rise above Gillooly’s ‘common denominator-ism,’ especially with the great new technologies we have to generate, refine, interlink, tag, store, filter, and search content.  If we can’t use them to rise above the lowest common denominator, shame on us.  

The second question posed above about bad content —  whether it can erode our critical faculties to the point that we become morons or dupes —  is a huge, broad, and deep one.  Many people believe that this process is in fact taking place.  In addition to everything else he did, Thomas Jefferson left these folk brilliant instructions in an 1820 letter he wrote to William Jarvis:

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Cynicism, elitism, and defeatism are all easy poses, and trying to internalize and follow this advice is hard work.  But down which path do real rewards lie?