Is Online Collaboration Helping Us Get Smarter?

Listening to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia speak in Dublin this week, I found myself wondering whether all the content that is being created in collaborative online projects is actually enhancing the store of human knowledge.

Wikipedia - "the sum of all human knowledge"

Is the wisdom of the crowd really a substitute for the genius of Aristotle, Shakesphere or Chomsky? Is our culture in reality dumbing down when someone like Jimmy Wales suggests that a sure sign that  “culture is getting smarter” is the fact that we have transitioned over 30 years from watching TV programmes such as We Love Lucy to the “intellectually challenging” Seinfeld and Lost?

Wikipedia is the world’s biggest reference work. It is an encyclopedia written collaboratively by tens of thousands of volunteers around the world and has a vision to be the “sum of all human knowledge”. There are 3 million articles in the English language and millions of others in nearly every other language, including 9,135  in Irish. Wikipedia is the 5th most popular website in the world. In China, restaurant menus offer “Wikipedia stir-fry” to tourists; a testament to the charitable project’s positive influence on one of the darkest places on our planet, bringing a glimmer of the light of free speech.

Despite Wikipedia’s lofty vision and its undoubted value in collating information on every topic imaginable, I am left a little unsatiated by it. It does serve as an aggregator of the things we know, but it doesn’t actually increase human knowledge. It doesn’t bring new insights to human thought.

Jimmy Wales also took some time to promote Wikia, a new commercial project that allows individuals to create wiki’s on popular topics that might not fit into Wikipedia. Some examples highlighted included a wiki on hacking Canon cameras, a wiki on the topic of homelessness in Tampa Bay, a wiki on sustainable living and a recipes wiki. There is also an all encompasing Answers Wiki, similar to Yahoo! Answers, but where there is only one answer to an inviduals’ question that is written collaboratively.

Wales sees Wikia as a replacement for message boards where “super-geeks” are no longer just talking to each other, but are “sharing insights” with a wider audience –  “the super geeks are writing stuff that is interesting to the rest of us.”  It seems that the most popular topics on Wikia however are on popular “intellectually challenging” US TV shows and are used by thousands of people to get a better understanding of the storylines and plots.

There is no doubt that “consumer media is becoming dominant” as Wales points out. He cites the example of a Google search for “muppet” where the  top three links returned are all consumer generated content with the official page of the Muppets often not making it onto the first page of Google search results.

The quality of collaborative writing  has been maintained, according to Wales, because there is only a “very tiny number of malicious people in the world.” However he does suggest that there are lots of “idiots” out there who write “stupid things” and that this is evidenced on Wikipedia by the increasing volume of reversions that are taking place there. A reversion occurs when a person edits an article on Wikipedia and that entry is subsequently erased and the article reverted to the previous version by a senior editor. Apparently this occurs to 80% of the edits made by newcomers to Wikipedia.

Jimmy Wales being interviewed by Mark Little at the TCD Philosophical Society 27/10/2009

The downsides of collaborative writing and crowd-sourcing are self-evident, but this shouldn’t take from the intrinsic benefits; in connecting people with common interests, in greater openness and sharing of knowledge and in the potential for breaking down barriers between opposing viewpoints.

It also taps into the fundamental enjoyment we get from expressing ourselves. When Wales tried to offer money to some super-geeks to write content for him, he was met with the response (paraphrased) – “if you give me money you’re going to tell me how to do it and when to do it. Just tell me what you want me to write. I’m that interested in what I do and you couldn’t pay me enough to do it.”

However, can collaborative online projects actually bring forth new insights into existing conundrums or promote advances in human understanding?

Insight is different to knowledge…
Knowledge happens in your head,
insight happens in your being.
Knowledge comes from others and
it accumulates, insight is your own
and it transforms you.

Knowledge makes you worldly but it
weighs you down, insight makes you
wise and sets you free. Knowledge is
old and stale, insight is fresh and in
the moment. Knowledge needs up-
dating, insight is timeless.

Robin Wheeler

In recent discussions here we’ve been trying to identify a model for an online collaborative network that could successfully bring innovators together with a view to helping to take breakthroughs,  insights and innovative solutions out to the marketplace. One of the fears expressed by some innovators is the fear that others will steal ideas, and so they are proposing that everyone sign NDAs before being allowed to participate in any collaborative network.

Is seems that the knowledge economy and the collaborative nature of what we do online are not well aligned. But sure we knew that already.

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2 thoughts on “Is Online Collaboration Helping Us Get Smarter?

  1. Brendan,

    I’d worry that you’re asking a bit too much of Wikipedia here.

    In my opinion insight/innovation/ideas (call it what you will) comes from the re-combination of existing knowledge, but in new ways. Because of this, it’s obvious that the larger the store of collective knowledge and the easier it is to access, the more likely it is that people will use it to innovate upon and create new ideas.

    This is evident throughout history, with the ancient Greeks and the library of alexandria, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and with the Renaissance in Florence.

    All of these started with a repository of collective knowledge at their core as a “step 1”, and then insight, discovery and genius flourished on top of this. I think this “step 1” is the role that Wikipedia, Youtube, ted talks etc. all serve on the internet and I think expecting them to play a part in “step 2” is not only asking too much, but could also distract them from the vital role they play.

    So I think you’re idea of an innovators network or some other tool that would act as a layer on top of wikipedia would work best, as opposed to trying to build idea generation into the library/encyclopedia itself.

    P.S. It was only after writing this that realised the unintentional irony in my linking to Wikipedia to give you the background knowledge upon which I’m basing my idea! 😀


  2. Hi Peter. Nice clarification there. Insight is essentially an individual thing and I’m thinking that online collaborations can support it, but not necessarily deliver it for all participants. While you can bring a horse to water you can’t make it drink. You can have all the knowledge available to you but it doesn’t mean the insight will happen.


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