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The wisdom of crowdsourcing

The wisdom of crowdsourcing

Wikipedia, it’s often said, is a success story of Web 2.0’s democratizing power. It’s hugely popular, free, and relies on an army of eager Average Joes—volunteers who collaboratively chronicle the world’s knowledge into (sometimes) illuminating encyclopaedic factoids.

But middling democracies often suffer from certain creaks as their nationalist fervours subside into the day-to-day hum of midlife. The same criticisms that have dogged Indian democracy for a half-century are resonant in the Wikipedia debate: That its debilitating bureaucracy and obsession with rules stifles creativity. Or that Wikipedia’s preoccupation with consensus-building fosters a kind of mobocracy.

The encyclopaedia popularized the crowdsourcing model, where an aggregation of many users use their collective wisdom to generate consolidated content. The fate of Wikipedia will determine the credibility of crowdsourcing. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that volunteers are departing the online encyclopaedia at record speeds. As participation has declined, Wikipedia is poised to redefine itself to address some of its shortcomings.

The most prominent criticism of Wikipedia is the very selling-point of its model: That anyone (at least in principle) can create and edit encyclopaedia entries. According to Wikipedia’s entry on itself, “Critics of Wikipedia accuse it of systemic bias and inconsistencies…and allege that it favours consensus over credentials in its editorial process."

This reveals a central trade-off of the crowdsourced model. It relies on the wisdom of a democratized user base, but if some accountability checks aren’t placed on users, its credibility will always be called into question. But in order to be effective, Wikipedia cannot cut out the crowd that makes its system viable.

According to The Wall Street Journal, it looks like Wikipedia is concerned about this. It is looking to launch a streamlined layout, so editing will be easier for the less technically inclined. It is reaching out to experts to write more rigorous pieces. And finally, it appears to be making its complex set of rules more accessible to average users.

These are all good moves. But Wikipedia must ensure that, in pursuing quality crowdsourced wisdom, it doesn’t cut out a key part: the crowd. That will prove quite a task.

Will crowdsourcing survive its credibility crisis? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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