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.

20 thoughts on “Web 2.0 — powered by numbskulls

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  5. Mathew, when it comes to my writing, you are one of the most creative inferers (inferrers?) that I’ve come across. I think it’s called “reading with your imagination.” Anyway, I don’t remember saying, or implying, that numbskulls were “Web 2.0’s biggest problem.” Just to be sure, though, I went and checked my list of “The 100 Biggest Problems with Web 2.0” (I keep it under my pillow), and I found that, actually, “numbskulls” comes in at #27. Nick

  6. Thanks for the comment, Nick — and the compliment. At least, I’m going to take it as a compliment 🙂 And I could have sworn that numbskulls was up in the top 10 at least. As for your gratuitous anti-Canadian slander, I’m going to ignore it, and assume that you’ve been drinking.

    All joking aside, though, it was a thought-provoking post, and that puts you right up there with the blogosphere’s elite — but then, you knew that already 🙂


  7. I wonder what mr. carr has against wikipedia. it’s far from perfect but it is quickly becoming one of the reference tools on the web. perhaps he should start making contributions to wikipedia to ensure it’s not dominated by “numbskulls”.


  8. Beautiful comments on Mr. Carr’s complaints of Web 2.0 numbskulls. I am really puzzled by why he would post this argument considering that in every field of new knowledge, there are many ideas that turn out be wrong but it is the constant refinement of these ideas that allows us to get closer to the truth – Popper’s concept of the working hypothesis.

    I also wrote a response to Mr. Carr and even got a mention on his posting under the Update section. But Mr. Carr chose to sidestep my argument that his thesis is fundamentally flawed because it is essentially a teleological argument. http://eclecticbill.blogspot.com/2006/04/wisdom-of-numbskulls.html

  9. Thanks for the comment, Bill — and I would agree that a big part of the problem with Nick’s analysis is that it hinges on who gets to decide (and how they decide) who qualifies as a “numbskull.”


  10. I think the problem is that when you try to mine the collective intelligence of a group of people, you also have to deal with their collective stupidity. Otherwise, committees would be sure-fire recipes for genius.

    Wikipedia is sometimes like listening to a huge committee where the chair of the committee insists that readers only praise the good parts of its efforts and not count any bad results.. All the while talking about how great committees are, in terms of being a management innovation.

  11. Unfortunately, democracy is kind of like that too, but the benefits tend to outweigh the disadvantages. And as someone once said, democracy is the worst form of government out there — except for all the others.


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  13. Wikipedia is not “democracy”. It is a pet project of rich guy, who holds ultimate power over it, delegates lesser power, and can’t ever be removed.

    Morever, “democracy” as a system of political organization is one thing, as a method of determining encyclopedia accuracy, quite another.

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