Web 2.0 — powered by numbskulls

by Mathew on April 28, 2006 · 20 comments

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.

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