Does Harnessing the Wisdom of the Masses Provide More Accurate Information or Poorer Quality?
Google? Bing? How do you find quick information online when you’re wondering who the last Nobel Peace Prize winner was? Or that actress that won the Oscar last night? A quick search in Google might land you at Wikipedia.com, but how do you know if the information you are reading is accurate? Our current generation of computer savvy individuals often assumes that what they are reading on Wikipedia is valid, but can you be sure?
Social media allows individuals to connect and collaborate in unprecedented ways, but what about the quality of the content that is generated?
Amitava Dutta, professor of information systems and operation management at George Mason University School of Business, is studying the quality of content generated through social media under conditions of minimally controlled collaboration. Dutta, together with professors Rahul Roy and Priya Seetharaman from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, have specifically chosen to study Wikipedia and the quality of its user generated content.
Dutta said, “One of the phenomena to emerge from this unfettered collaboration is referred to as ‘crowdsourcing’ or ‘harnessing the wisdom of the crowds.’ On one hand, the argument goes, unfettered access means that a ‘million eyeballs’ will be scrutinizing entries, eliminating mistakes and improving content over time. On the other hand, it also means that content is susceptible to the actions of the incompetent, ill-intentioned and ill-informed, which can degrade quality.”
While their research is still evolving, some interesting findings have emerged. For example, the ‘million eyeballs’ hypothesis does not seem to hold true. High quality Wikipedia documents are almost always associated with ‘parenting’ by a few intensely engaged individuals rather than from incremental contributions by many contributors.
Another finding was that Wikipedia articles tend to cross reference one another in clusters, rather than in some random pattern. High quality articles tend to be located in sparser clusters than lower quality articles, implying that they are bridging different clusters of knowledge. In related research, working with a focus group of Wiki contributors in India, Dutta also found that, although altruism is frequently cited as the predominant reason why individuals contribute to open forums like Wikipedia, a combination of motive, ability and opportunity is what really drives contribution.
And how can this knowledge apply to businesses? Organizations have attempted to use wikis in various ways, including for new product development, knowledge management, process improvement, software documentation and development. A wiki invites all users to edit any page or to create new pages within the wiki web site, using only a plain web browser. It seeks to involve the user in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration to improve products and services.
Dutta’s research implies that deriving business value from this social media technology requires purposeful shaping of the context within which the human technology interaction will occur. For example, a few ‘parents’ should be identified to initiate and oversee the content creation process rather than wait for it to start organically. Similarly, organizational policies can be developed to influence motivation and opportunity in a way that increases contributions. Motivation can be influenced by monetary incentives and opportunity can be improved by providing access and time in a pre-planned manner.
Dutta said, “Our investigations into the determinants of Wikipedia quality can help shape these open collaborations so that organizations can derive more value from Wiki technology as they seek to deploy it to create new products and services and improve organizational processes.”
Amitava Dutta joined George Mason University School of Business in 1992, where he is currently a professor and area chair of information systems and operation management. He also holds the LeRoy Eakin Endowed Chair. Dutta has been an international research fellow at the Electronic Commerce Research Center of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He serves on the editorial boards of several information technology journals and his research has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Dutta earned a B.Tech in electronics and telecommunications engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, an MS in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, and a PhD in management information systems from Purdue University. Click here for full bio.