Web 2.0 — powered by numbskulls

Nick Carr, the great shit-disturber that he is, has a post up about what he sees as Web 2.0’s biggest problem: in a word, it’s “numbskulls.” Or rather, the high proportion of numbskulls — meaning either stupid people or those with more opinions than actual knowledge — when compared with people who actually know something or have whatever skills are necessary (the capacity for critical thought, a command of English grammar, etc.). As usual, Nick isn’t afraid to come off as an elitist. In fact, I think he kind of gets a kick out of it.

His point is that projects such as Wikipedia.org aren’t as good as they could be primarily because the people who have the time to devote to them aren’t necessarily the best people to be doing so, because they don’t have the skills or the knowledge — and the people who do have the skills or the knowledge are too busy, or not interested, or get outnumbered by the numbskulls. Here’s a classic Carr riff:

“Wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms for the creation of content are often described in purely egalitarian terms – as the products of communities of equals – [but] that’s just a utopian fantasy… No matter how vast, a community of mediocrities will never be able to produce anything better than mediocre work.”

And then a little later, he paints a picture of Wikipedia.org as a tiny band of smart people (most of whom attended Harvard, no doubt) holding back the wave of human stupidity that threatens to wash over them:

“When you look deeply into Wikipedia, beyond the shiny surface of “community,” you see that the encyclopedia is actually as much, or more, a product of conflict than of collaboration: It’s an endless struggle by a few talented contributors to clean up the mess left by the numbskull horde.”

As usual, Nick has a point underneath all that elitism, and it comes into sharper focus if you read a post by Andrew McAfee that Nick links to. McAfee’s point, as he puts it, is that “there’s also a long tail among people, and it relates not to willingness to consume (i.e. demand) but rather to willingness to produce.” Ross Mayfield makes a similar point about the numbers of people who are willing to contribute to Web 2.0-type ventures, in a post about the “power law of participation.” Ross has also posted a response to Nick, which is here.

So how do you get more people to contribute — or fewer numbskulls? In a response to a comment I posted on his blog, Nick says that he wasn’t suggesting en elite group should pick who contributes and who doesn’t, although I think it’s fair to infer that from what he has written. In any case, how do you guard against the numbskulls? In a post of his own, Umair Haque seems to be arguing much the same thing I would, which is that Wikipedia-type models are self-regulating to some extent, although they probably need “super-users” to guard against vandalism.

Unfortunately, Nick, when you open yourself up to a conversation, sometimes numbskulls show up. Comes with the territory. And as Andrew McAfee argues, the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks, even in a corporate environment. But to make it work, a company’s management has to really want it to, and has to be willing to accept the bad with the good.

Can blogs affect politics and society?

As a lead-up to mesh in May, the Gang of Five — that is me, Rob Hyndman, Mark Evans, Mike McDerment and Stuart “call me Chairman Mao” MacDonald — have been talking a lot (not surprisingly) about the themes we want to look at, and crawling the blogosphere for evidence of how Web 2.0 and blogs are — or aren’t — affecting media, marketing, business and society/politics.

We decided to look at that last one in part because of the effect that bloggers had on the coverage of the Iraq war, on the election of George Bush and even on events such as the Jayson Blair affair at the New York Times — but also because of the effect that bloggers like Michael Geist and Ed “Captain’s Quarters” Morrissey and Joey DeVilla had on the Canadian election, when they helped destabilize and possibly derail the candidacy of Sarmite Bulte, the record labels’ best friend.

But we want to talk about more than that during the panels on the Web and politics/society at mesh in May. Could blogs and other Web-based technologies help non-profit groups and disadvantaged groups gain more of a voice, and thus help affect policy? And even broader than that, what are the implications of “open source” tools such as Wikipedia.org on human society — do they make it better or just reflect the worst elements of human nature? Mark wonders what Jane Jacobs could have done with a blog, and Rob asks whether they turn the blogosphere into an echo chamber. Stuart has some thoughts as well.

There’s plenty of material there for an entire conference, let alone a few panels and keynotes. Hopefully we’ll be able to pack enough of it into the time we have, and get plenty of participation and comments from attendees. If you have any thoughts or links, you can post them here or head over to the mesh wiki and throw them onto a page, or tag them with our del.icio.us links (described at the wiki).

Drinking the Web 2.0 kool-aid

As Rob Hyndman has pointed out on his blog, in organizing the mesh conference coming up in Toronto this May, we have tried to drink as much of our own kool-aid as possible — figuratively, that is — by using Web 2.0 services and features in both planning the conference and in the actual setup, including del.icio.us tags. As Rob has written in the past, we’ve also have made great use of Basecamp, Writeboard.com, Google Chat, Writely.com and Mollyguard. For billing, naturally, we use SecondSite from Mike McDerment (one of the mesh organizers) and his team.

We’ve also added a wiki to the meshconference.com website, which David Crow and the Toronto BarCamp gang helped put together, which allows anyone who is attending to post an offer of a ride, or ask for one, or add links and comments to the various pages that have been set up there. There is also a page for each stream — media, marketing, business and society — with a list of the del.icio.us tags for each panel. Rob and Mark and I have already been tagging articles and blog posts that we’ve come across over the past month or so, to get the categories started, but we’d love it if others wanted to add things that they see too, and then our moderators and panelists will have something they can look over that will help them get up to speed (if they aren’t already).

So if you see a piece that has something interesting to say about how the “social Web” is affecting either media, marketing, businesses or society/politics, get out your del.icio.us labelling gun and tag away.

Fascinated by .ca domain names?

If you live in Canada and just can’t get enough of the domain-name game, Stuart MacDonald would like to hear from you. Stuart’s the guy who started Expedia.ca and has helped us whip the mesh conference into shape over the past couple of months with his mad shao-lin meeting skillz 🙂 And now he is the chairman of the committee that is in charge of nominating people for the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which is in charge of .ca domain names. Get your applications in early — after you register for mesh, of course.

Brief items that might become posts

  • Google bought Writely.com, which is great, but they might want to take a look at ThinkFree Office, which PCWorld really likes and which just launched an upgrade, including a gigabyte of free storage.
  • Michelle Malkin has launched a conservative blogging and podcasting network called Hot Air (nice, self-deprecating name there Michelle). She calls it “the world’s first full-service conservative Internet broadcast network.” Lookout, Fox.
  • Kathy Sierra, whose site I am growing to like more and more even though it makes my head hurt a lot, writes about “moving up the wisdom hierarchy.” Lots to think about.
  • This makes no sense whatsoever: Skype says it will be selling music from EMI. Is there a business case here I’m missing, or is selling downloads now the online equivalent of selling gum at the cash register — it’s cheap and everybody likes it, so why not?
  • Looks like one of my favourite comedians has a friend in high places: Sacha Baron Cohen, otherwise known as Borat, made some enemies by claiming to be from Kazakhstan — but now the daughter of the leader of that nation says she supports him.