Wikipedia, collectives and connectives

There has been a bit of a flurry of activity lately relating to the notion of the collective, following a recent report on the future of learning etc from Horizon. It is notable that this flurry centres on George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and my good friend Terry Anderson, who are all very well connected. This is great – these issues are huge. As well as making some interesting observations on the collective, George Siemens talks of his preference for connective intelligence. I love the phrase, but I think that George is using his gift for inventing brilliant memes a little dangerously here: this is not connective intelligence at all. This is a bunch of people learning together using the network. I don't think that we can use the term 'intelligence' in this context. However, we can and probably should do so when talking about collectives, because they are far more distinct actors in the system. We can talk quite intelligently about a collective, but it makes little sense to talk about a 'connective' (at least when referring to a network of people).

One of the biggest problems affecting this recent discussion is that of defining the notion of collective. It is, unfortunately, a term that comes with a lot of baggage, not all of it useful or helpful in this recent exchange of ideas. For some people it comes with bad associations with communist thinking. Not useful. Worse still, there is a rich vein of literature about collective intelligence which is largely hogwash and wishy-washy thinking with no scientific value and weak philosophical foundations. Again, a pity. On the other hand, there is Star Trek. The writers of the Horizon report are more influenced by Star Trek than the rest of these ideas and this is as it should be. We are talking about the Borg here. In the world of Star Trek, the collective is an entity composed of multiple individuals but which is conected by a vaguely described network technology, allowing them in some ways to think as one. What is significant here is that the collective intelligence is an engine driven by algorithms and rules. Collectives in this sense use machine intelligence to amplify human intelligence or vice versa:  recommender systems (e.g. Google's PageRank), automated reputation systems (e.g. Slashdot's Karma points), tag clouds (e.g. everywhere) and collaborative filters (e.g. Amazon recommendations) all fit the bill.The human element is the fuel, not the engine of that intelligence. You could take away or replace any of the individuals without destroying the intelligence of the collective, though it might think differently. Bad rules and algorithms will lead to poor intelligence. The 'wisdom of crowds' has an unnerving and common corollary that is the 'stupidity of mobs'. Consider, for instance, the current presidential primaries, in which it has been shown that early voters have up to 20 times the influence of later voters ( but the original article is well worth reading). This influence is, to simplify slightly, a combination of both network (e.g. influence of friends and acquaintances) and collective behaviours (most notably counting of votes). A few simple rules that would introduce delay to reporting of results would largely compensate for collective madness. Connective madness is harder to guard against as memes and similar ideas are spread more easily from person to person, so perhaps we need to look at approaches to containing epidemics to prevent the spread of stupidity. Or we could just put it under the control of smart people.

Which leads me to the problem of thinking of Wikipedia as an example of collective intelligence.

For some,  including Brighton's fine Tara Brabazon and the (far less fine) Andrew Keen, Wikipedia is the work of the devil, an unreliable uncontrollable beast sapping away the next generation's ability to reason and think, replacing depth with a shallow and messy breadth that treats Star Trek with greater reverence than Shakespeare. They are wrong for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is their mistaken premiss that what was good for us will be good for the next generation. They are also wrong because they see its use as almost identical to that of a traditional encyclopaedia whereas it is far more of a jumping off point, a learning tool, an entry into a subject, not a source of definitive knowledge. If our students and kids see it differently it is our fault for not making that clear. However, the anti-Wikipedeans are really wrong about its reliability too. Sure, anyone can post any old nonsense but, by and large, you have to search hard to find it. And, while soft security does play a role in keeping it that way, there is more lurking under Wikipedia's skin than some popular writers give it credit for. Their fundamental miscomprension of its power is understandable given that some of its acolytes are equally confused about how it works.

Wikipedia is only partially a collective venture and, from most perspectives, this is not the main part. First, let's get what is collective out of the way. No one design's Wikipedia's index: it is an entirely emergent feature. In some ways, titles of articles are like tags: user generated metadata that emerge from the bottom up. It could be presented as a tag cloud in fact, with font size related to page views rather than numbers of uses because, apart from in terms of links from other pages, article titles tend not to be re-used. Other collective features include an option to see what links here, and links to what is currently interesting. This is all done by a bunch of simple collective algorithms that combine the discrete actions of individuals to provide a bottom-up structure. There are a few fairly informal rules about behaviour that also contribute. Notably, as Benkler points out in the Wealth of Networks, there is an underlying ideology of making the articles as unbiased as possible, a principle that spreads by example more than by instruction.

There is a fair bit of connective behaviour going on too. Discussion pages help to keep things on track, using network processes that rely on people either achieving consensus or at least identifying where they differ within the page. This is loose connective stuff on the whole, with small, variably committed and often transient communities forming through a shared interest in topics. There is also a certain amount of connection between the elite who are responsible for much of the content. We also know that some people are driven to contribute due to a desire for social capital. However, the network is not the biggest driver either.

The content creation itself is very much an individual activity and has very little to do with collective behaviour. Individuals decide on the length and subject, and of course they actually write the stuff.  At a fine granularity, articles are made by individuals, albeit often more than one. They have many motivations. However, even they are not the primary locus of control.

Wikipedia is structurally a highly top-down system. Structure influences (and sometimes determines) behaviour. Large slow-moving structural features create the context for what can happen there. There are many examples of top-down hierarchical control in Wikipedia: for instance, the featured content, the application of automated algorithms to identify poorly cited or contentious articles, the alphanumeric format for the index, the fact that Jimmy Wales and his crew of administrators have ultimate control which is exercised regularly and often. And let's not forget the structure of the system itself, most significantly in interaction design, functions & operations (including those notable by their absence) and interface, which has a great role to play in determining the forms that emerge. The use of logins, and the structure of lists, featured content, glossaries, portals, timelines and even a hint of Dewey and the Library of Congress, not to mention the numerous automated systems that check for  references, reliability and so on, all make this a highly controlled venture. It is a different kind of control than what we might find in an old-fashioned encyclopaedia, but it is control all the same. For instance, in the previously linked article in Wikipedia on the Borg, we see…

If this is not top down control I don't know what is. Sure, laws are rarely enforced, but there is a great deal of persuasion going on. And this stuff is everywhere. All of which contributes greatly to the reliability and effectiveness of Wikipedia, but relatively little of which has much to do with collective or connective intelligence. Wikipedia (more specifically its designers, managers and administrators) are like intellectual dairy farmers, milking the herd to provide us all with a good, sustaining slug of high quality knowledge.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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