The social media revolution (in 15 minutes)

The Curve of Common Sense
June 8, 2007, 4:13 pm
Filed under: My stuff

The role of mediation is a biggy in social media. If, as seems likely, the influence of the traditional media is going to decline in the face of huge growth in citizen media or consumer generated content , who is going to perform the role of guardian, gatekeeper, arbiter of standards and quality – and all the other things most traditional media players like to think it is they do? Is there a risk that everything will slip to the level of the lowest common denominator – not so much the wisdom of crowds, but the stupidity of the herd?

In thinking about this, my mind turned to a dimly remembered concept from days of enforced study of statistics – that of the normal distribution curve. Now as I understand it, the normal distribution curve charts the level of variance in something and there is a natural tendency for this curve to be the same sort of shape for most things – a classic bell shape. Presumably the rule of normal distribution will apply to variance in things like ideas and opinions and the only condition for this to apply and be useful is for there to be sufficient numbers involved to make the whole thing representative and a level of visibility – i.e. an ability to see where on the curve something sits.

If we assume that an idea, a concept, story or opinion has a variance within it which follows a normal distribution and if we plug in the basic theory that lies behind the concept of the Wisdom of Crowds it seems we can be assured that the opinion that sits + or – 5 per cent either side of the norm will actually represent a far more objective, balanced and comprehensive view than that to be found in the Daily Mail, on Fox TV or, dare I say it – even in the Guardian. We could in fact call the normal distribution curve as it applies to discourse within social media as the Curve of Common Sense.

For this to work practically – we have to be able to see where on the curve a bit of information sits. Now it seems to me that much of the folksonomy type processes inherent in social media – tagging, rating, commenting as well as the evolving forms of social search and aggregation – are all working to both assign something a position on the curve and make this position visible.

In short the Wisdom of Crowds + the processes of folksonomy = the Curve of Common Sense

Now we probably haven’t quite got there yet in terms of visibility, but given the direction we are heading in we can have some confidence that social media has within it an inbuilt tendency to become both self-mediating and mediated to better standards than that which we get from the traditional media. Perhaps this is also another take on the whole issue of trust shifting from being vested in institutions to being vested in process.

So we can all sleep easy in our beds (except old school journo types who refuse to believe that collective intelligence can be better than (their) individual perspective). Alternatively this could all be a load of codswallop from a social media neophyte who failed any statistics test he ever took. Comments welcome.



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[…] Personally, I think that social media has within it a tendency to become essentially self-mediating to better standards than the traditional media. However, I am not 100 per cent confident that this will necessarily be the end result or will be achieved without some prompting. I don’t think the answer lies in forms of regulation or codes of conduct, but I do think the answer lies in looking at process. On of the big social shifts inherent in social media is that trust is moving from institutions to processes and James Surowiecki’s excellent Wisdom of the Crowds concludes that this wisdom can only be achieved when certain conditions or processes apply. […]

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