digital rhetoric

on crowds, wisdom, and playbor

Matt Asay's recent CNET article on the "wisdom of the crowds" losing steam is likely to please the many critics of social media, but perhaps the observable trend is misunderstood. Asay comments focus on the slow down of Wikipedia but also branches into areas of open source development. He notes that "Even uber successful open-source communities like Joomla have discovered that reliance on volunteers falls short of what a few good paid developers can do." Asay concludes that the wisdom of the crowds "hasn't changed the world. It has only changed the way the dominant technology companies…dominate." These all seem like reasonable observations. And certainly it seems the case that whatever labor revolution social networking purports to bring, it certainly hasn't upended the corporate world to date. If anything, corporations have discovered ways to adapt new technocultural practices to their own purposes.

That said, even as extensive a project as Wikipedia is eventually going to wind down. Eventually the excitement wears off. The challenges of updating, editing, and maintaining an encyclopedia are different from those of building one, and maybe are not as broadly appealing. It was always the case that only a fraction of Wikipedia contributors did that kind of work.

On the flipside of this is the growing strength of "algorithmic authority," as Clay Shirky terms it. From Google PageRank to Netflix or Amazon recommendations, we increasingly rely upon an automated wisdom of the crowd to guide our navigation of the web.

But what Asay seems to be saying is that there appears to be a clear limit to the quality of the work that can be achieved through simply opening up a task to the general public and seeing who does what. No doubt limits exist and large public projects like Wikipedia are going to follow a curve of public enthusiasm and cultural inertia, which may not correspond with some abstract notion of the project's goals (or with a corporation's interests in that project).

On the other hand, I think we have still not developed a working ethic or political understanding of how social networks work, let alone how they "should" work. To get some sense of how much confusion there is over this, one can consider Andrew Ross' presentation at the recent "Internet as Playground and Factory" conference held by Trebor Scholtz at the New School. The central paradigm in Ross' thesis here, and on the Institute for Distributed Creativity, is that social networks and related new media activities represent a new realm of labor exploitation.

So if one were to put together these varying perspectives one would have to envisage social media as a space where everyday users are exploited to create information of little use or value.

But let me just offer one flipside example.

Think of the book. First, I was subjected to more than a dozen years of institutionalized experiences in order to be taught how to use this technology and appreciate it. Second, any time I want to use a book, the book's producers expect me to spend hours of labor in order to extract any "pleasure" from the experience, a pleasure I wouldn't have ever felt or even sought out if not for the years of ideological instruction I've been subjected to. Third, book usage has caused all kinds of physical problems from poor insight to many hours of inactivity to the injuries caused by lugging these suckers around in a backpack.

And that doesn't even get into the other side of the exchange where I am expected to produce texts as a playbor experience.

And obviously the printed book has been one of the central technologies of colonialist expansion, capitalist exploitation, and state ideology.

So how about the book as playground and factory?

I'm not suggesting that there's no difference between these technologies. Obviously. But when we are thinking about ethical and political issues, there are related challenges.

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