From the Wisdom of Crowds, to the Wisdom of Friends

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“I think the wisdom of crowds applies not just to Google but to a phase of the web, which was about information and about links. It was a lot of wonderful things, mostly based on anonymity and links between crowds… Ours just starts from a totally different place. So it’s an evolution.” Sheryl Sandberg

This quote is taken from an interview last week with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (some key bits in the video above, or you can watch the whole thing here). I think what Sandberg says reveals an interesting perspective on where Facebook see the value in what they do – talking about the wisdom of crowds and the ‘phase’ of the web it represents in the past tense, for example. And of-course about how they want Facebook to be the default mapping of links between people and the content they share.

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A key element of this is algorithmic. We don’t see all the content all of our contacts share all the time in our newsfeeds. Edgerank, the Facebook algorithm, makes a judgment on what it believes to be the most relevant content to us, taking account of (amongst a few other things) an ‘affinity’ score – a measure of proximity based on the level of interaction you have with another connection. Facebook is effectively prioritising content shared by what it believes to be my closest friends and contacts over that shared by others that I have connected with.

In one sense this may be helpful. My friends on Facebook might be a diverse bunch of contacts sharing all kinds of different content so algorithmic curation of this kind might over time help me to filter out stuff I find less interesting. In another sense however, it is not. There is not a direct correlation, for example, between level of interaction and quality of content shared. Nor is their any appreciation of the context I am in right now and what information might be most interesting or useful to me at this precise moment. And given the diversity of most people’s interests I’d say that Facebook has a pretty poor understanding of what I like.

There is also a not insignificant risk of narrowing our input over time, entering into a self-perpetuating cycle where we see content from those with whom we’ve interacted with most, which encourages us to interact more with those same people, which causes us to see even more content shared by them, and so on, and so on.

One of the trends that Gartner included in their recently released ‘Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2012’ was so-called ‘Context-aware computing’. The idea of using information about an end-user or object’s “environment, activities, connections and preferences” to improve the quality of interaction, anticipate needs and proactively serve up the most appropriate content and augment that with customisation and recommendation.

It’s a fascinating idea, full of opportunity for content producers of all kinds, but it’s also a big shift in how people access and find content that interests them. Whilst I appreciate that we’re only at the start of this road and algorithmic curation will undoubtedly improve over time, my hope is that we don’t lose more than we gain in the process. I’m generally an optimist about these kind of things and believe that serendipity will find a way, that people often go out of their way to seek out the new and the stimulating, and that the right combinations of professional, algorithmic and social curation (which is undoubtedly a content formula for the future) will naturally win out through increased demand. But in the rush toward the wisdom of friends, we should be very careful that we don’t lose the wisdom, and the inspiration, of crowds.

Image by: Meer

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