When the wheels come off: on information, experts, and the limits of the crowdsourced hype brigade

An excerpt from Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

…information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of diminished social and political potency.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself a series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two to four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold.

As with most of Postman’s withering critiques of communication technology, I find this assertion to be a bit harsh, but not unfounded. We might use the web to find ways to reduce our own carbon footprint, for example, and there are some early (though hardly decisive) indications that a more engaged form of citizenry might yet emerge online. But while I do have amazing access to instantaneous information at my fingertips, at almost any time and almost any place… it’s hard for me to argue that this in itself makes me any more effective or influential in terms of making the world a better place.

The peculiar myopia that can affect those of us immersed in the exciting world emerging technologies was brought home to me reading this account by Alfred Hermida of Robert Scoble’s keynote at the Online News Association conference.

The talk turns out to be a tour of Web 2.0 communication tools and how they are changing the nature of how we interact with information.

Scoble moves on to talk about Twitter, demonstrating the power of micro-blogging. He cites how he found out about the China earthquake through TwitterVision before it was reported.

To which I can only reply, what possible good can come of Robert Scoble knowing about an earthquake before it is reported? (Which in today’s environment must have been a span of what… five minutes?) Did he mobilize a Web 2.0 rescue team? Were global waves of emergency response funds raised via Twitter before the mainstream media itself got around to reporting the story?

I’m not suggesting that networked media can’t have a constructive role to play in these situations. Wikipedia comes to mind as a resource that has demonstrated an astonishing capability to rapidly synthesize information (that has proven useful) in response to events like these. But again, how often does sheer speed improve my capacity to act? Especially within the context of a Twitter hivemind that is always chasing the newest, buzziest story? (I don’t see too many follow-ups on the current state of Chinese earthquake victims in my Twitter feed lately.)

Another object demonstration of the limits and peculiar hubris of the Web 2.0 crowd came through my newsreader late last week, when the tech news site Mashable noted that “Robert Scoble asked the tech blogosphere’s ‘thought leaders’ to weigh in on this issue of the economy (and included Mashable amongst those he invoked)” and not surprisingly “all but declared defeat in his search for expert opinion.”

The post in which Scoble acknowledges the sheer stupidity of his exercise is itself a must-read:

In the past 18 hours I’ve read literally thousands of posts and have done almost nothing but hang out on FriendFeed. I’ve seen a LOT of idiocy. And these are supposedly from the smarter, more educated people around. People who I’ve had a beer or two with and who I count as friends and fellow Americans.

…The downside of this new media world is that you’ll hear a lot of opinions. Which one is right? I’m not always right. In fact, I’m often wrong. But I’ve counted on YOU, the audience, to help me correct that when I’m off in the deep end. Now, though, I’ve seen so much idiocy that I’m not even sure of my audience anymore. That’s how deep our loss of confidence in each other has come.

As an aside, I’ve seen Scoble post these sorts of penitent reflections on the hype-soaked discourse of his practice before, and it never seems to change how he does his work.

Why is Scoble surprised that techbloggers aren’t the best people to ask about a complex global financial crisis? Did he think to canvass the photobloggers? Why not the dentist bloggers? (There must be a dental blogger scene by now, right?) Scoble might be a guy to read when it comes to understanding modern communication technology (then again, maybe not), but to me the real power of self-publishing is that I now have the opportunity to learn the thoughts of Nouriel Roubini directly – without having to go through Tom Brokaw (or Robert Scoble) to do so.

Being an “expert” on new media does not in itself make anyone qualified to comment on what’s going down. Do we automatically assume the operator of a printing press knows all the ins and outs of literary theory? That doesn’t mean we as citizens don’t have a right (or an obligation) to learn what we can, and the power to express ourselves in a wonderful thing — but surely demonstrable expertise should count for something?

8 thoughts on “When the wheels come off: on information, experts, and the limits of the crowdsourced hype brigade

  1. but it’s not just web 2.0 that pushes info for info’s sake. 90% of the local tv newscast is useless info.

    “someone got murdered. some car accident…”

    sad, sure, but not info that I can _do_ anything with, except maybe be afraid… or tune in for updates, to watch the ads…

    our role has devolved from being active participants in a community, to relentless absorbers of data. it’s a one way journey, where news goes to die.

    it’s interactive (participatory?) but passive.

    it’s largely irrelevant and unimportant that we are so connected to constant flows of news updates.

    it seems like we’re set up to get info. to think about it. to share it.

    but to _do_ nothing with it.

    So scoble heard about the earthquake. what did that do? what does it mean, when we’re satisfied to be receivers of instant updates, but do nothing to act?

    this artificial urgency, this constant stream of irrelevant updates, desensitizes us to the news that really matters. anna nicole smith got 24 hour coverage, but darfur got next to none (in traditional media, and participatory web 2.0 culture as well).

  2. Holy shit,

    I think you just beat up Scoble! I love it!
    More seriously, amazing stuff here, and a necessary anodyne to the over inflation of this technology as it relates to issues that mediation often fosters rather than helps to solve.

    The Abject, two gems in a row in a day? I’m in heaven!

  3. Dude! You’ve got two killer posts in the same day, one of which refers to Postman’s best writing ever, and Alan’s making allusions to nucleotides while talking about the unbearable lightness of web-being. I’m joining Jim in heaven (maybe we can meet up for a beer).

    You’ve nailed the paradox of modern life, and what seems to slowly eat away at our soul – we know more about what we can’t change and at the same time, we know less about what we have the power to change. How much local news is on TV compared to 10 years ago? If your primary news source is the web, how much local news is available?

    Scoble’s experiment and failure reveal a lot about our assumptions for online participatory networks like twitter. We talk a lot about the wisdom of crowds, and Wikipedia is a great example of what can happen when that wisdom is harnessed. But what about the stupidity of crowds? I’d rather talk to an economist about the imploding American financial system than take a twitter-poll (sorry twitter-buds – even you have your limits of knowledge). Expertise also has its place as a source of knowledge, but we in North America generally seem to be mistrustful of experts and academics.

  4. I would use the Tsunami of 2006 (?) as an example that spread via the web and that prompted some kind of action. If not for Flickr and to a lesser extent, blogs, that incident would never have made the news cycle except as a ticker item scrolling across the screen. But since there was such a rich collection of photos and accounts, it became a major story, prompting hundreds of people to send aid.

    And Katrina? Maybe that story was kept alive because of blogs.

    I think some new media effects are more like water dripping on a rock, eating away at the old structures that dictated what we need to know and when.

    The problem is, new media can become just like the 24-hour news cycle if we let it. But, I think it has potential not to. What Jennifer Jones wrote about the other day and what Surowecki says in Wisdom of Crowds is key–diversity. I happen to have an economist in my Twitter feed. I have a few people I disagree with. I was also able to go to Wikipedia to find out what a credit default swap was and what commercial paper was. I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago.

    Look, Scoble could have done a lot of things with his information about the earthquake. He could have started a fundraiser. He could have organized a relief trip. He could have contacted the Red Cross. He chose not to do anything.

    Doing is hard. It requires effort and I think we shouldn’t blame the information flow for our decision not to act on the information we have. To me, new media makes our information less abstract. As you say, it takes away the filter. That’s an important first step to action imo. Now it’s not images flickering across the tv screen. It’s a person writing about escaping their flooded house or the bombed out house or the earthquake. It’s a Wall Street banker talking about what *really* happened. I think we can’t assume that interaction leads to action and we have to be vigilant against complacency. So maybe we should start acting on information ourselves and see what happens.

  5. I think Laura’s point is right on. If you take the Postman point there are two sides to it (at least as I read it quickly). Postman calls out the fact that telegraphy put information in your hands about things which you cannot affect. One way to look at that is information glut, and I think we’d be fools to not all agree that it’s a problem that we will forever deal with.

    But another way to look at it is our ability to know about things that are remote has far outstripped our ability to *do* things about situations that are remote, and a healthy reaction to that problem could be the development of more power to affect these remote things — things like trillion dollar bailouts, and wars fought on lies.

    I think to the extent we spin out wheels (Scoble earthquake excepted) it’s not because these things are remote, but because our intersection with them does not match the real importance they have.

    I agree with you about the Scoble experiment, and about much of that 5 minutes sooner school of journalism. But there’s a way that that is doing something as well — by undermining the authority of the press on the stupid terms they treasure we put another crack in their hegemony. And when we dispose of Mass Media, I think we’re going to find that we are a lot less remote from changing things than we have been told.

    (and if i’m only focussing on a small piece of your post here it is because I could literally write about this issue all day… and I need to work…)

  6. The goodness of these posts could only be possible with increased brain blood volumn. I think someone finally got the Trepanation they’ve been waiting for…..

  7. @D’Arcy – “interactive, but passive” is a dynamic worth thinking about more.

    @Rob – interesting you mention the role of “local”… the broader context Postman discusses here is that the attention paid to remote concerns drew away people’s engagement with the issues in front of them. Oddly enough, I’ve really come to value online interactions with people closer to me: people who blog about East Vancouver, or the Twitter feed from my office mates.

    @Laura – that’s an awesome comment. The Tsunami was the case I was thinking of in which Wikipedia seemed to outperform the media in terms of collecting and assessing solid information… and from what I read that work actually assisted rescue efforts. I’m less convinced that the efforts to raise funds were significantly enhanced by moving online – I can recall lots of impressive and large scale fundraising that has happened pre-digital. I also thought the post-Katrina landscape was quintessentially about live television more than blogs (I remember the Flickr feed from NO was quiet in the week following the hurricane). You may well be right on that, and I wrong… I absolutely agree that the distinction between knowing and doing is key.

    @Mike – Ditto on knowing/doing… and your thoughts on breaking the grip of centralized mass media were also percolating in my head as I wrote that post even though I didn’t address them… thanks for raising it. I will say though, that this phenomenon of some modern-day bloggers thinking they always need to have something on the Big Story of the day, regardless of their actual knowledge, creates a media fog every bit as distorting as letting the nightly news set the agenda for us.

    @Lesley – a hole in the head is as good as two… umm, what were you saying?

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