Over the past few days, my interpretation of the World Wide Web has changed. I actually never thought about it for that long or hard as a human creation that, from the beginning, was created for worldwide collaboration and communication. In a world of selfishness and greed to land a hefty ROI on new inventions, the fact that the Web is so accessible truly amazes me. In fact, I’m currently writing this post at a coffee shop using free WiFi (although I did buy a coffee).
Ultimately, the World Wide Web makes us smarter. It gives mankind one giant brain to pull ideas, resources and answers from; it’s made me smarter every single day because of the intelligence of others.
The book that changed my opinion was “Net Smart” by Howard Rheingold. He defines five forms of mass collaboration in the chapter “Social-Digital Know-How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence” and, because his input affected me so greatly, I would like to summarize and reflect on each form of collaboration: collective intelligence, virtual communities, social production, crowdsourcing and wiki collaboration.
Henry enkins refers to collective intelligence as “a situation where norbody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given members knows is accessible to any other member upon request and on ad hoc basis” in his 2006 writing “Collective Intelligence vs. the Wisdom of Crowds.”
This definition depicts a process I notice every single week at The Curragh Irish Pub’s trivia night. The trivia questions are random and difficult, and most team members don’t know the answers by themselves. However, teammates will think about each question aloud and prompt informational recall in other players. Collectively, the group often answers each question correctly. But they only do so by working together to harness the intelligence of each individual.
The internet works in much the same way and allows whole communities to solve complex problems. A few examples Rheingold cited was the website Climate CoLab and the research conducted by The Center for Collective Intelligence.
As the name implies, virtual communities are defined by Rheingold as “a group of people who may or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange ideas through the mediation of computer bulliten boards and networks” (“Virtual Communities”, 1987).
The first virtual community I thought of was Twitter. It collects and connects people from all over the world at the same time. One great example was the other day when I was watching the movie “Superbad”. As the movie was playing on Comedy Central, a hashtag trended on the bottom of the screen, encouraging watchers to converse and “hang out” while watching the movie together.
As Rheingold suggests, these virtual communities are computer-mediated communications but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. The people that I talked with on Twitter felt like my friends for those few hours; I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie alone anymore.
However, my experience was not a true community as we know the term. Rheingold stresses that communities are longer term interactions, where people connect and feel supported on a regular basis.
Although I have not actually experienced this sense of virtual community, this new form of communication intrigues me. Understanding the fact that these communities are real, and not degrading those that participate in online forums, is a new form of media literacy essential to surviving as a respectable millennial.
Crowdsourcing is the third form of mass collaboration, and learning about it truly enlightened me. This concept reminds me of collective intelligence in that many people gather together for one purpose. However, in crowdsourcing, the purpose normally serves the greater good.
One example of this is the First Aid Corps iPhone app that used the experiences and mutual interest of the public to map where cardiac defibrillators are around the world. Mapping the location of these technologies through crowdsourcing uses many people to accomplish one task that, in many cases, can be lifesaving. This cause specifically resonates with me because of a local high school basketball player, Wes Leonard, that could have been saved by an on-site AED.
Crowdsourcing does more than map AED’s, though. It gathers people of similar interests to impact their community through collective action, donations and intelligence. Rheingold even cites instances in which websites utilize the public to contribute to scientific findings.
All the social good that can be completed through crowdsourcing is the essence of democracy. Learning about the power of the Web to enable crowdsourcing resassured me of the goodness of humanity. It’s beautiful.
Social production relies on crowdsourcing to normal processes of industrial production to form “commons-based peer-production”. Yochai Benkler proposed this form of production in 2002 as a process that creates data and resources for the open-source Web that anyone can use. Although some argue against social production because those that don’t contribute still benefit from the final product, Rheingold argues that this is not a true concern because the cost of “free riders” is significantly less than the overwhelming benefit of collective production.
One example of social production is Wikipedia, which Rheingold refers to as the fifth form of mass collaboration. I hadn’t seen Wikipedia as a true source of knowledge until taking the time to learn more about it.
Now, I think that Wikipedia is a reliable source of information. Anyone can edit a wiki page, but I think that this lends more reliability to the content; the way that Wikipedia operates with a “recent edits” tab, ability for editors to comment back and forth to one another and constant updates sent to main contributors -serves as a system of checks and balances.
In fact, I argue that Wikipedia should be encouraged as a resource for students to reference in their research papers. Wikipedia utilizes collective intelligence and perspectives to come to a conclusion. I cannot say the same, however, for textbooks and research articles that are written by one or two authors. Although these authors may be more educated and “reliable” than the general public, they are also human and humans are prone to bias. Whether or not we would like to admit it, every “scholarly” source will have information in it that others disagree with. In order to be the most fair and reliable, why not reference a source such as Wikipedia that was written by multiple authors in the first place?
I would be interested to see how recent events have changed Rheingold’s interpretation of collaboration. Is it still relevant? Does Wikipedia still function the same way or has it encountered more problems that offer validation to anti-wiki arguments? Although I haven’t done much research beyond Rheingold’s writings, my personal experience with the online world is that it does still encourage mass collaboration.
Overall, Rheingold’s book “Net Smart” has truly changed my opinion about the beauty of the Web. I now see it as a source of innovation, collaboration and unity in a world so often ravaged by arguments and warfare.