Microsoft Edge's Private Mode May Actually Record Your Browsing

The fact that some people continue to use Microsoft software continues to puzzle me. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t given them a chance. Decades of chances. And it’s not like there are not alternatives. Much better alternatives, often open source, often free. It’s not even as though Microsoft dominates the market any more. If you are stuck using Windows and you’re not using Firefox or (if you must) Chrome, Opera, Safari or one of many alternative browsers, it’s probably a good time to switch. Of course, if you are stuck using Windows 10, you definitely want to look at your privacy settings anyway. It won’t stop Microsoft from spying on you altogether, but it will help limit the excess

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Demotivating students with participation grades

Alfie Kohn has posted another great article on ways we demotivate students. This time he is talking about the practice of ‘cold calling’ in classrooms, through which teachers coerce students that have not volunteered to speak into speaking, rightly observing that this is morally repugnant and reflects an inappropriate and mistaken behaviourist paradigm. As he puts it, “The goal is to produce a certain observable behavior; the experience of the student — his or her inner life — is irrelevant.” A very bad lesson to teach children. But it is not limited to children, and not limited to classrooms.

Online, it is way too common for teachers to achieve much the same results – with much the same moral repugnancy and with much the same behaviourist underpinnings – through ‘participation’ grades. We really need to stop doing this. It is disempowering, unfair (especially as, rather than grading terminal outcomes, one typically grades learning behaviours) and demotivating. It also too often leads to shallow dialogues, so it’s not as great for learning as it might be, but that’s the least of the problems with it.

Ideally we should help to create circumstances where students actually want to contribute and see value in doing so, regardless of grades. If it has no innate value and grades are needed to motivate engagement, there is something terribly wrong. There are lots of ways of doing that – not making everyone do the same thing, offering diverse opportunities for dialogue, for instance. I find student and tutor blog posts and the like are good for this, because they open up opportunities for voluntary engagement where topics are interesting, rather than having to follow a hierarchical threaded flow in a discussion forum. Allowing students a strong say in how they contribute can help – if they pick the topics and methods, they are far more likely to join in. Asking questions that matter to different students in different ways can help – choice is necessary for control, and is way easier to do in an asynchronous environment where multiple simultaneous threads can coexist. Splitting classes into smaller, mutually supportive groups (ideally letting students pick them for themselves) can be beneficial, especially when combined with pyramiding so each group contributes back to a larger group without the fear and power inequalities larger groups entail.

If grades are needed to enforce participation, it’s a failure of teaching.  Getting it right is an art and I freely admit that I have never perfected that art, but I am quite certain that grading participation is not the solution. There are no simple formulae that suit every circumstance and every student, but being aware of the problems rather than relying on a knee-jerk participation grade, especially, as is all too common, when there are no course learning outcomes that such a grade addresses, is a step in the right direction. Of course, if there actually is an explicit outcome that students should be able to argue, debate, discuss, etc then it is much less of an issue. That’s what the students (presumably) signed on to learn about, though there is still a lot of care needed to ensure all students have an equal chance, and that there is enough scaffolding, reflection and support available to ensure they are not graded on ‘raw’ untutored interaction, and that the interaction becomes a learning experience that is reflected upon, not just accomplished.

In case you are wondering how I deal with grading based on social interactions, my usual approach is to allow students to (optionally) treat their contributions as evidence of learning outcomes, typically in a reflective portfolio, and to encourage them to reflect on dialogues in which they may or may not have directly participated. This allows those that are comfortable contributing to do so, and for it to be rewarded if they wish, but does not pressure anyone to contribute for the sake of it, as there are always other ways to show competence. There’s still a reward lurking in there somewhere, so it is not perfect, but at least it provides choices, which is a start.

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Interview: Zygmunt Bauman: “Social media are a trap” | In English | EL PAÍS

Thanks to Stu Berry for pointing me to this. A fascinating interview, the headline of which doesn’t even begin to characterize the rich range of issues covered, most of which relate to economic, political and social concerns far beyond those of social media. It is very enjoyable and full of wise insights. Bauman’s only actual comments on social media are left right to the end and occur in a single reply:

“The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.

This is a very eloquent and succinct expression of concerns others, like Sherry Turkle, Andrew Keen, Eli Pariser, Tara Brabazon and many more have voiced about social media. I think it is important to have these discussions and to observe what is lost as well as large-scale systemic effects, and this captures the essences of many of those themes very nicely. But it is (necessarily due to its brevity) a distorted caricature that leaves much unsaid. For instance, the question of identity has not changed at all. What we do now have are different ways of playing with identity in addition to what we have always had. We are not seeing a change to everything, nor even a change to individuals, but an increase in the adjacent possible.

Networks and communities

I very much like the phrase “The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you” which neatly expresses Wellman’s notion of networked individualism and is a nice characterization of the central difference between groups and networks.

This is, though, a simplified delineation of network and community, because almost all of us are and always have been members of many overlapping communities. And, of course, as Wellman has shown, we do not ever have to choose between one and the other. We constantly move between different networks and communities. Such things can operate simultaneously, sometimes literally – it is unusual not to be at an event with a group of people, especially but by no means exclusively those under 40, where at least one person is not instagramming, facebooking, or tweeting it, extending its meaning and value beyond the collocated community. There is certainly a case to be made that the event itself is thus devalued: it is without doubt affected by this extension, and it is not always in a good way. I have seen whole tables in bars where everyone sitting at them is looking at a cellphone, not at those around them, and I don’t think that is good. But I have also seen tables of people not talking at all without cellphones, and the simple fact that they are together, whether talking or not, is significant and meaningful. The fascination with virtual networks mediated through cellular devices is not the end of this. It is a passing phase that is worthy of reflection and only part of a much richer evolving tapestry. It is related to an older phenomenon of recording an event with a camera. The photographer becomes not a participant but an archivist, and changes the behaviours of other people at the event by making them conscious of themselves and of the event as an historical object. It does raise questions and concerns, but it is part of an evolutionary process that has not even begun to have played out yet.

The first part of Bauman’s response is a little facetiously treating the word ‘friend’ in social networks as having the same connotation as it has in real life. I too hate the devaluation of the term and the ugly cynicism with which Zuckerberg chose it to manipulate the emotions of Facebook members (so hard to explicitly say that someone asking to be your ‘friend’ is not a friend at all), but people with hundreds of ‘Facebook Friends’ seldom if ever believe these are actual friends – if they do, it’s a clinical condition that probably needs treatment.

Doing things together vs talking about it

Bauman’s answer does speak to a concern, not explicitly voiced but I think at the heart of his and others’ concerns, that we are replacing shared practice, purpose and communal activity with dialogue. It matters a lot that people do things together and share the same social, physical or virtual context when they do so. That shared practice or activity – whether it be doing a job, watching a movie, eating together, learning something, creating something, drinking together or whatever – is normally (but not always) lost in social media, which are often concerned with talking about such things rather than doing them together. This can blind those that view it as outsiders to the rich complexity of what is really going on within overlapping communities and networks of participants. They see individuals leading separate lives and talking about them, which would, indeed, be extremely shallowing and alienating if it were all that they did. But, except in extreme and worrisome cases, that is simply not the case. It may be a worry that many people are leading second-hand lives, talking about people talking about people, though this is not a new problem with social media, but an unfortunate side-effect of mass media (one of many). We have lived with problems like the cult of celebrity for a very long time. At least social media provide a greater chance to talk about the problem!

Filter bubbles and echo chambers

The difference between doing things together and talking about doing things together also speaks a little to the second half of the response, which is about fllter bubbles and echo chambers. When we do things together in the world, we constantly negotiate and jostle for meaning, action and purpose. Just talking about it is not the same. When we do things together, there is inevitably conflict, albeit seldom great enough to barely even notice – when we adjust our walking pace to walk together, when we feel we must show interest in things that bore us, when we choose a bottle of wine, etc. There is also delight and serendipity. Doing things together is what social life is all about: talking about it, reflecting and reminiscing, is largely a binder, a reinforcer and a connector that helps us to make shared sense and meaning out of that. When we do things together we cannot shut out or ignore those that we do them with. Popular social networking systems seldom replicate this doing-together, but many social media do: most obviously social games, but also a wide range of collaborative tools, from shared calendars to project management tools. Social media are very diverse and are usually very soft, so can play many roles. Email, as a classic example, can support almost any level of engagement, community or practice. My wife and I used to watch movies together via Skype when we were apart. To treat all this diversity as though it were Facebook is silly, and even Facebook has a very wide range of tools, purposes, uses and (yes) even communities.

There is a real and worrisome sense that filter bubbles and echo chambers are dangerous, albeit that it has ever been so. In the olden days we built those bubbles through our choice of friends, newspapers, and TV viewing and, in the mass media, editors performed the filtering for us. In the olden days, I used to just ignore sections of newspapers that addressed things that did not interest me. Now, we have a much richer potential range of things to choose from, but the bubbles are built by algorithms more often than human editors or, as in collaborative filters, through cyborg hybrids of machine and people. We do not just select what we want to see but, once we have selected it, a system performs further selection for us, often based on a coarse user model designed by a programmer (the failures of which are actually sometimes a good thing, because their mistakes show us things we might otherwise ignore or never even see). Furthermore, given the large amount of stuff out in the stuff swamp (Walt Crawford’s delightful term) and the incredibly large range of inhabitants of it, it is easy to find what seem like many people who share the craziest of views, from creationists and climate-change deniers to flat earthers and alien conspiracy believers, so it is easier to find support for niche beliefs that separate rather than connect us. There is a home for cliques and cults like there has never been before, and tribal feelings have seldom been so visible or so strong.

Luckily, though, diversity is never far from view unlike, for quite a lot of the world, in real life, where our jobs and locales seldom expose us to much that is unfamiliar and where norms are constantly and relentlessly reinforced, especially those of us that do not live centrally in cities or large towns. Most of us are not part of a single network, but are members of many overlapping communities, and many networks connected by diverse and different kinds of connection, virtual and physical. Few of us limit our engagement to a single tool, site or system and, by engaging beyond our geolocated communities, we bring enriching new perspectives to them, and return the distinctiveness of our isolated communities to those networks. Furthermore, as Terry Anderson and I have noted, a great deal of the Internet is about neither communities (groups) nor networks, but about sets. For instance, many of us view a lot of individually or group  or crowd-curated content, from Best of Reddit to our local newspaper. These don’t burst our filter bubbles but they do bring in a lot of serendipity and fuel our networks and communities with an ever-burgeoning range of diverse views. This provides a great many counterbalances to the problems of echo chambers and filter bubbles. There is a lot of noise out there, clamouring to be heard.

So, I don’t think Bauman is wrong. The concerns that he caricatures are very real. I just think that it is very much more interesting and complicated, with positive and negative effects, than a concise summary of concerns can hope to reveal. I suspect he might agree.

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Course Exam: Religious Studies (RELS) 211

One of what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with AU faculty about their courses in AUSU’s Voice Magazine. This one is concerned with the intriguingly titled Death and Dying in World Religions, explained by the author and coordinator, Dr. Shandip SahaIt provides fascinating glimpses into the course rationale, process and pedagogy, as well as some nice insights into what drives and interests Dr Saha. There are some nice innovative aspects, such as formally arranged phone conversations between tutor and student at key points – low tech, high engagement, great for building empathy while doing much to assure high quality results. It does make me wonder, when tutors inevitably therefore get to know a lot about their students and their thinking, why an exam is still necessary. My inclination, in the next revision, would be to scrap that or make it more reflective (‘what I did on my course’ kind of thing) as it offers nothing much to an otherwise great-sounding course apart from a lot of stress and effort for all concerned. The course subject matter and pedagogy itself sounds brilliant and I really like Dr Saha’s attitude and approach to its design and implementation. 

I would love to see more of these. It’s a great way of sharing knowledge and reducing the distance. One of the fascinating things about our virtual institution is that, in some ways, we have far greater opportunities to learn from one another than those in conventional institutions, where geographical isolation means people seldom get a chance to see how those in other centres and faculties think and work, and the local is always more salient than the remote. Online learning can and should break down boundaries. Apart from places like here on the Landing, where a few dozen courses have a pitch, we don’t normally take enough advantage of this. I would encourage any AU faculty who are running courses that are even a little out of the ordinary to share a bit about them with the rest of us via blogs on the Landing, even if the courses themselves don’t actually use the site. Or maybe even to contact Marie Well at the Voice Magazine to volunteer an interview!

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Dumb poll illustrates flaws in objective tests

Given its appearance in Huffpost Weird News, this is a surprisingly acute, perceptive and level-headed analysis of the much-headlined claim that 10% of US college graduates believe Judge Judy serves on the US Supreme Court. As the article rightly shows, this is palpable and scurrilous nonsense. It does show that a few American college graduates don’t know who serves on the Supreme Court (which is not exactly a critical life skill) but, given that over 60% got the answer correct and over 20% picked someone who did formerly serve, the results seem quite encouraging. The article makes the point that Judge Judy is referred to on the poll simply as Judith Sheindlin,  that is not the name she is popularly known by, so there is no evidence at all that anyone actually believed her to be a supreme court judge. It was just a wrong and pretty random guess that no one would have got wrong if she had been referred to as ‘Judge Judy’. I’d go further. Most people would only know Judge Judy’s real name if they happened to be fans, in which case they would instantly recognize this as a misdirection and so be able to pick between the three remaining alternatives, one of which even I (with no interest in or knowledge of parochial US trivia) recognize as wrong. So it is quite possible that a large proportion of correct or nearly correct answers were actually due to people watching too much mind-numbing daytime TV. Great.

What it does show in quite sharp relief is how dumb multiple choice questions tend to be.  If this were given as a quiz question in a course (not improbable – most are very much like it, and quite a few are worse) it would provide no evidence whatsoever that any given individual actually knew the answer. This is not even a test of recall, let alone higher order knowledge. A wrong answer does not indicate belief that it is true, but a correct answer does not reliably indicate a true belief either. Individually, multiple choice questions are completely useless as indicators of knowledge, in aggregate they are not much better.

As long as they are not used to judge performance or grade students, objective quizzes can be useful formative learning tools. Treated as fun interactive tools, they can encourage reflection, provide a sense of control over the process, and support confidence. They can also, in aggregate, provide oblique clues to teachers about where issues in teaching might lie. In a very small subset of subject matter (e.g. some sub-areas of math problem solving), given enough of them, they might coarsely differentiate between total incompetence and minimal competence. There are also a few ways to improve their reliability – adding a confidence weighting, for example, can help better distinguish between pure guesses and actual semi-recollection, and adaptive quizzes can focus in a bit more on misconceptions, if they are very carefully designed. But, if we are honest, the only reason they are ever used summatively in education or other fields of learning is because they are easy to mark, not because they are reliable indicators of knowledge or performance, and not because they help students to learn: in fact, when given as graded tests, they do exactly the opposite. I guess a secondary driver might be that it is easy to generate meaningful-looking (but largely meaningless) statistics from them. Neither reason seems compelling.

Apart from their uselessness at performing the task they are meant to perform, there are countless other reasons that graded objective tests are a bad idea, from the terrible systemic effects of teaching to the test, to the extrinsic motivation they rely on that kills the love of learning in most learners, to their total lack of authenticity. It is not hard to understand why they are so popular, but it is very hard to understand why teachers and others that see their job as to inspire, motivate and support would do this to students to whom they owe a duty of care.

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Space is the Machine

Space is the Machine, a book by Bill Hillier, is available online for free, and is also back in print again after too long an absence. Around 15 or so years ago this book changed how I see the world. As my own well-thumbed paper copy has suffered a lot over the years, and is a very large, heavy object that attracts a lot of dust and not much reading, it is delightful to be able to dip into the pristine electronic version and again be inspired.

This site has each chapter individually downloadable. A full 368-page copy is available at

The book is as much a work of philosophy as it is of architecture and urban planning (its main subject matter). It incorporates insights from sociology, psychology, anthropology, network theory, linguistics, complexity theory, distributed cognition, systems theory, aesthetics, engineering, ecology, collective intelligence, topology, emergence and more. The ideas it embodies have far broader potential applications than the built environment, including to ways we think about the purpose and practice of education, as well as to more obviously related things like the design of online social applications. In brief, it provides a way of understanding complex human systems and environments as interconnected configurations of structure, objects, time, and movement, in constant dynamic and emergent interplay with abstract, social and psychological phenomena. There are strong echoes of Jane Jacobs (uncited) and Christopher Alexander (cited) in all of this, but it goes farther up and farther in.

I don’t know whether the book and the theories of space syntax it describes impress most architects and urban planners. As I am neither, that’s not the point for me. Whether all the arguments and conclusions make sense in its intended context or not (and some are a bit suspect, even to an outsider like me) this book repeatedly makes strikingly novel connections between diverse and otherwise incommensurate fields, and it constantly provides new perspectives that make the familiar strange and fascinating. It is inspiring stuff.


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Study shows Facebook spreads nonsense more effectively than fact

An interesting side-effect of the way Facebook relentlessly and amorally drives the growth of its network no matter what the costs: stupidity thrives at the expense of useful knowledge.

This study looks at how information and misinformation spread in a Facebook network, finding that the latter has way more long-term staying power and thus, thanks to EdgeRank and the reification of communication, continues to spread and grow while more ephemeral factual pieces of news disappear from the stream. I suspect this is because actual news has a sell-by date so people move on to the next news. Misinformation of the sort studied (conspiracy theories, etc) has a more timeless and mythic quality that is only loosely connected with facts or events, but it has a high emotional impact and is innately interesting (if true, the world would be a much more surprising place), so it can persist without becoming any more or less relevant. It doesn’t have to spread fast nor even garner much interest at first, because it persists in the network. All it needs to do is wait around for a while – the Matthew Effect and Facebook’s algorithms see to the rest.

There is not much difference between interest in scientific and anti-scientific articles at the start. There is a wave of activity for the first 120 minutes after posting, then a second one 20 hours later (a common pattern). But then the fun starts…

It’s over the long term that serious differences were observed. While the science news had a relatively short tail, petering out quickly, conspiracy theories tended to grow momentum more slowly, but have a much longer tail. They stick around for a longer period of time, meaning they can reach far more people.

Then there’s another problem with the way Facebook works – the much-discussed echo-chamber effect. This effect is far more active in Facebook than in other networks, with algorithms favouring content from people and groups you regularly interact with. So if you share, Like or even click on conspiracy theories a lot, you’re more likely to be shown them in future, reinforcing the misinformation, rather than challenging it.”


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Brain Based Learning and Neuroscience – What the Research Says!

Will Thalheimer provides a refreshing look at the over-hyping of (and quite pernicious lies about) neuroscience and brain-based learning. As he observes, neuroscience is barely out of diapers yet in terms of actual usable results for educators, and those actually researching in the field have no illusions that it is anywhere close yet (though they are very hopeful). What the research says is pretty close to nothing, when it comes to learning practice.

I am a little sceptical about whether neuroscience will ever be really valuable in education. This is not to say it is valueless – far from it. We have already had some useful insights into memory and have a better idea of some of the things that reduce or increase the effectiveness of brain functioning (sleep, exercise, etc), as well as a clearer notion of the mechanisms behind learning. Such things are good to know and can lead to some improvements in learning. The trouble is, though, that most researchers in the area are doing reductive science – seeking repeatable mechanisms and processes that underlie phenomena we see. This is of very little value when dealing with complex adaptive systems and emergence. Stuart Kauffman demonstrates that there are two main reasons reductive explanations fail to give us any help at all with understanding emergent systems: epistemological emergence and ontological emergence. Epistemological emergence means that it is impossible in principle to predict emergent features from constituent parts. Ontological emergence means that completely different kinds of causality occur in and between emergent phenomena than in and between their constituent parts, so knowledge of how the constituent parts work has no bearing at all on higher levels of causality in emergent phenomena. It’s a totally different kind of knowledge.

Knowing how the brain works in education is useful in much the same way that knowing about movements of water molecules in clouds is useful in meteorology. There are insights to be gained, explanations even, but they are of relatively little practical value in predicting the weather, let alone in predicting the precise shape of a specific cloud. Worse, in education, we don’t have a very precise idea of what kind of cloud shape we are seeking, most of the time. In fact, when we act like we do (learning objectives and associated assessment) we usually miss a great deal of the important stuff.

But it is worse than that. Those of us concerned with education are not just predicting or explaining phenomena, but orchestrating them. You can no more extrapolate how to teach from knowing how the brain works than you can extrapolate how to paint a masterpiece from knowing what paint is composed of. They are not even in the same family of phenomena. This doesn’t mean that a painter cannot learn useful things about paint that can assist the process – how fast it dries, its colour fastness, its viscosity, etc, and it does open up potential avenues for designing new kinds of paint. But we still need to know what to do with it once we know that. So, yes, brain science has value in education. Just not that much.

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Social Influence Bias: A Randomized Experiment

Fascinating article from 2013 on an experiment on a live website in which the experimenters manipulated rating behaviour by giving an early upvote or downvote. An early upvote had a very large influence on future voting, increasing the chances by nearly a third that a randomly chosen piece of content would gain more upvotes in future, with final ratings increased by 25% on average. Interestingly, downvotes did not have the same effect, making very little overall difference. Topics and prior relationships made some difference.

This accords closely with many similar studies and experiments, including a social navigation study I performed about a decade ago, involving clicking on a treasure map, the twist being that participants had to try to guess where, on average, most other people would click. About half the subjects could see where others had already clicked, the about half could not. The participants were aware that the average was taken from those that could not see where others had clicked. The click patterns of each set were radically different…

Mob effects in social navigation

On closer analysis, of those that could see where others had clicked, around a third of the subjects followed what others had done (as this recent experiment suggests), around a third followed a similar pattern to the ‘blind’ partipants, and around a third actively chose an option because others had not done so – on the face of it this latter behaviour was a bit bizarre, given the conditions of the contest, though it is quite likely that they were assuming just such a bias would occur and acting accordingly.

One thing that might be useful, though very difficult, would be to try to weed out the herd followers and downgrade their ratings. StackExchange tries to do something like this by giving more weight to those that have shown expertise in the past, but it has not fully sorted out the problem of the super-influential that have a lot of good karma as a result of gaming the system, as well as the networks that form within it leading to bias (a problem shared by the less-sophisticated but also quite effective Reddit). At the very least, it might be helpful to introduce a delay to feedback being shown until a certain amount of time has passed or a threshold has been reached.

One thing is certain, though: simple aggregated ratings that are fed back to prospective raters (including those voting in elections) are almost purpose-built to make stupid mobs. As several people have shown, including Surowiecki and Page, crowds are normally only wise when they do not know what the rest of the crowd is thinking. 


Our society is increasingly relying on the digitized, aggregated opinions of others to make decisions. We therefore designed and analyzed a large-scale randomized experiment on a social news aggregation Web site to investigate whether knowledge of such aggregates distorts decision-making. Prior ratings created significant bias in individual rating behavior, and positive and negative social influences created asymmetric herding effects. Whereas negative social influence inspired users to correct manipulated ratings, positive social influence increased the likelihood of positive ratings by 32% and created accumulating positive herding that increased final ratings by 25% on average. This positive herding was topic-dependent and affected by whether individuals were viewing the opinions of friends or enemies. A mixture of changing opinion and greater turnout under both manipulations together with a natural tendency to up-vote on the site combined to create the herding effects. Such findings will help interpret collective judgment accurately and avoid social influence bias in collective intelligence in the future.

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