hive mind, in Slate

I was interviewed for Slate about Ask MetaFilter. I like the way the article came out. When the hive mind works, it’s a beautiful thing.

wikipedia: economies of community scale, cherish individuals first

Wikipedia is all over the place lately, from the New Yorker to The Atlantic to the Colbert Report [youtube]. Interesting side note regarding scalability of Wikipedia. Major media mention of articles on Wikipedia — particularly in areas known to be frequented by tech-savvy individuals — can result in whole swaths of mentioned articles getting protected status, something that can only be conferred by an administrator. You can trace the history of the Elephant article to see that it was getting a few edits a day until just about the time that the Colbert Report aired and then it began getting several edits per hour. In fact most of the articles mentioned by Colbert are now semi-protected.

This is a dramatic difference between print and collaborative online reference-type works. The transparency of Wikipedia is both a mark in its favor in a Library 2.0ish transparency way as well as a detriment in that it keeps track of every bit of bad behavior as well as every helpful edit. An open question is whether tracking the bad with the good results in less petty vandalism (your jerkishness on display for everyone to see) or more (Wikipedia history = hall of fame for vandals). We deal with this over on MetaFilter a lot, trying to figure out what to do with people who abuse the site and what to do with their contributions.

As a side reading project, I strongly recomment taking the time to dig through Jaron Lanier’s essay DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism and article about Wikipedia and other collaborative sites from the perspective of someone who both realy understands technology and also someone who examines it with a critical eye. I read the whole thing, I suggest you read the whole thing.

The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals — just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.

These are just a few ideas about how to train a potentially dangerous collective and not let it get out of the yard. When there’s a problem, you want it to bark but not bite you.

The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all. By avoiding that nonsense, it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.