Monday, February 25, 2008

The myth of Web 2.0 democracy

I think that those of us who are supporters and promoters of Web 2.0 tools--such as wikis, blogs (.pdf), and social bookmarking--have known in the back of our mind that there is always a small cadre of people who do most of the work on these sites. Everyone else just kind of look on and occasionally tweak something posted by someone else.  Here's how Chris Wilson of Slate Magazine put it in his online article, Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy describes it.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots--supervised by a special caste of devoted users--that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

His source is Ed Chi, a research scientist at Palo Alto Research Center's (PARC) User Interface Research Group. In a 2006 paper, titled Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Chi, along with Aniket Kittur and Todd Mytkowicz analyzed the content creation and editing of Wikipedia. In a follow-up evaluation of the data, Chi noted on the PARC blog that there appeared to be at any given moment in time, a few user are a lot more active than the rest of the population, but there is a long tail of other users who are contributing to the effort.

When we are out selling these concepts to our clients we need to be sure to impress upon them that there is going to have to be a solid cadre of individuals within their workplace that will take the lead in populating and editing these tools. Management cannot expect all workers to flock to the site and enter data.

It is more likely that they will take a look at what a few people add to the database of information. If the content is easily accessible and is presented in a readable user-friendly format they may review it and modify it slightly. If hash is presented -- poorly structured wikis, social bookmarks that have no coherent folksonomy -- then the masses will probably ignore the content and continue to rely on other sources of information within the workplace.

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