Harnessing the collective intelligence is the cornerstone of the Web's success. I used to have a lot of faith in expert knowledge and expert advice. I still do. However, because of the Web, and in an increasing number of circumstances, I am beginning to place more faith in the advice of collective intelligence.
We have been brought up to respect experts. Generally, I think that's a good idea, particularly from my own perspective, seeing that I make my living by selling myself as an expert.
However, just how good is expert advice in general? "Statistical predictions are, as you would expect, fallible," writes David G Myers in his excellent book, Intuition. "But when it comes to predicting the future, human intuition-even professional intuition-is even more fallible."
"There is no controversy in social science which shows so many studies coming out so uniformly in the same direction as this one," Myers quotes University of Minnesota clinical researcher Paul Meehl as stating. "When you are pushing 90 investigations, predicting everything from the outcome of football games to the diagnosis of liver disease and when you can hardly come up with half a dozen studies showing even a weak tendency in favour of the clinician, it is time to draw a practical conclusion."
If I interpret Meehl correctly, then what he is saying is that every time the expert comes up against an evidence-based, statistically-driven approach, the expert is invariably less accurate.
The traditional expert is under attack from many quarters. Joe Conason recently wrote in Yahoo News that "the Washington punditry has been reliably wrong about everything of consequence for many years, from Whitewater to weapons of mass destruction. For any sane politician, the "biggest risk" is listening to these people." Could that be even partly true? If so, what are the implications?
Not every one is attacking the expert. Andrew Keen lambastes the crowd in his upcoming book, 'The Cult of the Amateur'. According to Steven Levy, writing in Newsweek, Keen sneers at concepts such as "collective intelligence", "citizen journalism" and "the wisdom of crowds". Keen believes that Wikipedia, for example, is no more reliable than a million monkeys banging away at their typewriters.
I have to say that I was quite skeptical about Wikipedia at first. I have often found its writing wooden and lacking genuine style, but it is an incredible resource. I have also found it to be very accurate. According to a Nature Magazine investigation published in 2006, "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries".
The Web is not about crowd-think, but rather about amalgamating and sifting the results of many people's independent opinions on particular subjects. This approach is the essence of Google's success-the more people who vote for (link to) a website, the higher it ranks in Google.
Something extraordinary and quite revolutionary is happening on the Web. Millions of minds are coming together to create a vast global brain and memory bank. We will spend the next fifty years pondering the implications of all this.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.