Cass Sunstein’s book, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2006) presents an insightful view of the promises and pitfalls of tapping the collective wisdom of crowds. It’s a view that’s informed by the author’s background as an attorney. After all, the judicial process taps the aggregated understanding of a jury to determine guilt or innocence. Jury deliberations are an interesting point of departure to understanding how collective wisdom works or does not work.
Sunstein observes that “deliberation often fails to aggregate information even as it increases agreement and confidence among group members.” He goes on to examine different methods for obtaining access to many minds and the four big problems faced by each method. Those problems are:
– Amplifying the errors of a group
– Failing to elicit tacit information
– Cascade effects
– Group polarization
These are the problems that plague anyone that tries to tap into a group’s collective knowledge. Sunstein examines the effect of these problems on prediction markets, wikis, open source software and blogs.
His observations on the blogosphere are familiar to anyone that’s studied the issue. He rightly points out that the blogopshere offers “a stunningly diverse range of claims, perspectives, rants, insights, lies, facts, falsehood, sense and nonsense.” There is a tendency among bloggers and readers of blogs to remain in an “information cocoon.” Many bloggers read only those blogs that share their points of view. One remedy he suggests is for bloggers to offer links to blogs that are quite different than their own. This encourages the spread of differing opinions (op-ed), yet it rarely happens. Echo chambers promote information cocoons.
If nothing else, blogs allow an unprecedented degree of self expression and connection with others. Once you are aware of the traps (echo chambers and information cocoons) and the problems (amplification of errors, tacit information, bad cascades and group polarization) inherent in this world of many to many communication, steps can be taken to promote the “healthy aggregation of information.” The lesson learned is to keep an open mind and seek out those that hold opinions that differ from yours. That’s one of the keys to making sense of the blogopshere and it should guide your efforts to “seeking out widely dispersed information and aggregating these into uncannily productive wholes.”