Crowdsourcing: The wisdom of crowds, or the madness?
Crowdsourcing is necessary to Web 2.0, but there is a clear need for top-down guidance
The Twitter community has developed its own way of categorizing tweets — a tweet is a message as long as 140 characters that answers the question “What’s happening?” — called hashtags. A hashtag is a keyword preceded by a hash sign (#). Thus people tag their tweets with keywords of their own choosing to group them by subject. For example, you could add #work, #personal or #iphone to the end of your tweet to state that it belongs to one or more categories.
This open, bottom-up groundswell of unregulated behavior is extolled by proponents of social networking, crowdsourcing and the power of Web 2.0. The concept of using the Internet to take advantage of the behavior of the masses has been popularized by books such as “The Wisdom of Crowds” and “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business.” However, it is worth noting that these books are somewhat in contradiction to an 1814 book by Charles Mackay entitled “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” Mackay presented the history of mass excess and folly by chronicling economic bubbles, alchemy, crusades, witch hunts and many other crowd-driven delusions. So who’s right and what are the ramifications for transparency and Government 2.0?
Before we answer that, let’s examine some problems with crowdsourcing and hashtags. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites a decline in Wikipedia volunteers, which puts into question the notion of crowdsourcing. Specifically, the article postulated that some volunteers were leaving because of editing rules put in place to fix the previous problems with quality, reliability and editorial vandalism. Second, the White House’s Data.gov collaboration site has seen an anemic response for such a core component of government transparency. Especially troubling for Data.gov is the lack of deep technical responses from the Semantic Web and developer community. That again puts into question the quality of interactions available with crowdsourcing.
Finally, the White House’s recent release of the Open Government Directive created a lot of buzz on Twitter, so I have been monitoring the hashtag #opengov, which I had seen used by several people, to keep track of this. Unfortunately, when researching this article, a Twitter search for “open government transparency” revealed many other hashtags, including #gov2.0, #ogd, #transparency and #government — and even #tbrs, whatever that is — but no tag for #opengov on the front page. Although Twitter shows the current top trending hashtags, there is no way for a user to determine which hashtag is best for a particular subject because there is no organization to the scheme. These pitfalls significantly reduce the trustworthiness and utility of hashtags. They might be useful, but there is no guarantee of precision, and thus they cannot be relied upon.
What does this mean for crowdsourcing? I see crowdsourcing as a necessary but insufficient condition of Web 2.0. The act of asking for public input is not enough to achieve progress on an objective. Moving the ball forward also requires a top-down focus. What we see here are the limits of a bottom-up process and the need for top-down guidance. Using a gardening analogy, if a bottom-up approach lets a “thousand flowers bloom,” the top-down approach prunes out the weeds. Both are necessary for a healthy garden.
So if bottom-up solutions have problems and ivory-tower solutions have their own set of difficulties, which we will not go into now, what is the path forward? In my years of doing work with data standardization, I have learned that exclusively bottom-up and top-down solutions fail. Instead, what is needed is an iterative cycle that appropriately oscillates between the two. During my military service, I often heard and used the Army’s motto of “Mission First, Men Always” — now expanded to People Always. This is a superb example of using creative tension between potentially opposing forces. Using that as a model, the motto for effective crowdsourcing should be “Top-down First, Bottom-up Always.”