Blog Post

Accountabilities of Crowds

Thanks to Jim for an interesting post on collaboration in Wikipedia. He argues that wikipdia isn't so much a wisdom of crowds phenomenon, but a mass collaboration that happens among actors who may or may not know what will become of their work. 

I've been worrying about the wisdom of the wisdom of crowds myself lately. "Wisdom of crowds" is a Silicon Valley religion, like libertarianism and liberal ideals. (I'm going off of participant-observation from 10 years of being a valley citizen myself, but Fred Turner documents these threads carefully.) I find "wisdom of crowds" to have a dark side to "wisdom" that comes from slivers of contributionsmade by people who don't know what they're contributing to and likelydon't have a chance to profit from their participation. AmazonMechanical Turk, where many people make about a dollar an hour makingextra cash to make ends meet, is an example of this dark side. What are ethical conditions under which crowds should labor? (I asked 67 Mechanical Turk workers this very question myself: 67 Turkers Bills of Rights...more on that later.)

Not only do conditions of work become difficult to account for when the workers are millions of microtime workers. Emergent genderings, racializations, and other modes of differential injustice also are hard to track down. Wikipedia's story of open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed. For example, I strongly suspect there's a bias againstwomen in who is considered notable enough to have a biography. I'veknown several women who have had the appopriateness of having wikipediabiographies challenged (danah boyd, for example) while less notable men go unchallenged. Like with the liberal politics of individual choice markets, lots of people get a vote but the powerful often set the agenda and win. And like neoliberal racial politics, when everything is aboutindividual choices and agency -- when practically anyone can edit an article -- we don't have to talk about race and gender, right?

Both Wikipedia and wisdom of crowds logic generally have a commitment toemergence and a commitment to getting the right answer -- the neutral,objective truth. And that's what worries me. 

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2 comments

I agreee--and in fact think there is nothing about inequality that doesn't transfer from meat-life to virtuality . . . The inequalities can take different (or the same) forms, but I am hugely skeptical whenever anyone pretends that simply a transfer of technology ever changes the underlying inequalities of culture. These persist. (You may have seen the posting for the talk I've been giving on "Digital Youth and the Paradox of Digital Labor: Do-It-Yourself or Do-It-For-Them" about uncompensated productivity. Artists, of course, often are ripped off . . . but rarely in a professionalized system where the profit is ultimately Rupert Murdoch's. Thanks so much for posting. This is a great thread.) By the way, your own research sounds fantastic. Good luck with it! It sounds like you are definitely pursuing a productive line of thinking here. Thanks for posting.

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I wish HASTAC would alert us when someone responded to our posts. I only just now saw this. Thanks for the encouragement and the link to uncompensated productivity. I'm downloading the talk right now.

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