Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Voice of the Many

Internet is increasingly an interactive platform. In the past, one could only visit or read a page on the web. Today one can comment on an article, give a thumbs-up to a page by linking to it (and increasing its page rank), "digg" it, make others "stumble upon" it, forward a precis of it to others, etc.

Internet is becoming a collaborative communication medium.

Web 2.0, as this phenomenon is being called, is bringing democracy to the digital world. But just like democracy, it has its shortcomings. What appeals to many is increasingly considered more important than what is correct.

Search for something on Google, and you will receive thousands (or even millions) of results. Nobody will go through all of them. The rank of a webpage determines its usage. The better the rank, the more it will be read, and the more it is read and linked to, the better its rank.

To explain: The top results are of webpages that the largest number of people have found worthy. This is the basis of Google's "page rank" algorithm, variants of which are used by almost all major search engines today. Obviously, algorithmic page-ranking eliminates a human expert or librarian (who could be biased, true), in favor of a clapping multitude.

Wikipedia is only slightly better. Try any topic on Wikipedia, and you will see a page that has gone through an evolutionary editing process. In this process, the "fittest" facts or opinions survive. And what is the mark of fitness on Wikipedia? The number of its supporters, and the number of editors which agree with a certain position. For highly controversial subjects (for which there is a crowd on both sides), one does find both sides of the argument. But for obscure subjects (e.g. a page on a spiritual swami), which have only a few detractors and a lot of followers, it is a losing battle for the detractor to add some unpopular facts to its Wikipedia page. A zealous prejudiced crowd will quickly edit it out.

The fitness of content on the internet is the number of people who value it.

All the social bookmark sites (Digg, Delicious, Reddit), the social video sites (Youtube, Dailymotion), the recommendation systems (Netflix, Google feed reader), follow numbers and automated algorithms, without consideration of the quality of the content. It is the quantity (of its followers) which matters the most.

Films get "fresh" or "rotten" ratings on Rotten Tomatoes based on how many reviewers liked it.

It is a good thing, all said and done, that people's voices are being counted and listened to. But unless the opinions are informed, voices can be just voices of prejudice and unfair bias. Blogs are many, but most are uninformed opinion-pieces. Blog comments are exploding in numbers, but most are heated reactions instead of quality responses.

Sometimes, the "wisdom of the crowds" may balance out contrary viewpoints and lead to a balanced outcome. However, when information availability is unbalanced (because one side or opinion has too many people pushing it and defending it), and the participants are steeped in conditioning, then what is the way forward?

Democracy is better than all other political processes (it has fewer flaws than them), it still has its shortcomings. I think it is important for people to become literate in ideas, not just in language or information, and become better participants in an increasingly democratic world. Both online and offline.

Democracy can become better only when its participants become more informed, rational and humane. And democracy propels an individual to convince others, to share his ideas, to refine one's expression and ideas, since it is the voice of the many which matters. It is natural to value communication and consensus in a democracy.

So, fellow human being, participate, and participate well, and make others better and more active participants in this world!


Anonymous said...

on the lighter side:

:-) looks like we have another guru shaping up, this time on www and with his pearls of wisdom, he will entertain us, just like those quacks and charlatans do, but this time intelligently and smartly!

i hope that this guru does not turn exploitative or starts emotionally fuck witting his followers soon...keep on the "tamasha" before degenerating into a buffoon...hail h-man!!

Anonymous said...

and let me see, if you post my comments! i am no troll but a follower of your blog since last 2 years...let's see if you are strong enough to take the heat!

Harmanjit Singh said...

hi "anonymous"

people do see a lot of buffoonery even now in my blog. so don't hold your breath.

as for "entertaining us", i am glad you find my posts entertaining, as i was under the impression that they are quite dense and need lightening up.

as for being exploitative, rest assured that i have no intention whatsoever of changing anyone else. it is hard work enough to work on oneself. i only intend to share my thoughts. people can do what they want with them.

your "heat" is very welcome.

Anonymous said...

your posts are very entertaining. i mean it in the larger implication of the word and not the narrow meaning to provide mirth and laughter etc. you need not make any extra effort to lighten them, they are good. Yes, sometimes you get bitten by the bug of guru syndrome, but if your intentions are as you state them, you will be cured out of this tendency and will write as an 'observer' rather than a 'commentator' of human condition. when you have observed a great deal, your perceptions will be distilled and when affective fallacies will cease to be, your writing will be more accessible.

I see you are not a native learner of english, may be you are much more 'yourself' in your mother language than the acquired one.

my "heat" is like that of embers after burning, it heals and not burns!! :-)

Harmanjit Singh said...

hi anonymous,

you are right, english is not my native language. i am trying to be more "natural" in it and acquire felicity.

would you like to elaborate on the difference between a writing based on "observation" and a "commentary"?

Pramod said...

Hi Harmanjit,
The internet appeared on the scene resembling a mass media, with one way information flow possible, from the static websites to the general population.As it developed it shifted the power centers from the authorities(who assumed greater role in the decision making on the content in traditional media) to the general public; the public decided which content gains better visibility through social sites like digg, reddit or delicious.The recommendation engine of these sites valued the number of people who voted up a content.Of late the sites having been rolling out new recommendation engines which observe voting patters and pops up list of users who have valued similar content.Now a days if I need information on topics and I don't agree with the mainstream, I search for similar communities on the web or for persons with similar interests on social sites.We still have a way to go in this direction but a healthy start has been made.

Really enjoy your thoughtful posts keep posting.