The Dark Side Of Web 2.0 And Technology Populism

MattbrownBy Matt Brown

So before my flight West today, I picked up the recent Jeff Howe book Crowdsourcing. I was looking for a little inspiration for a speech I'm giving at Forrester's Business & Technology Leadership Forum on a trend we call "Technology Populism." Like other edgy, Web 2.0-ey books of our era (Groundswell, Wisdom of Crowds, Tipping Point, The Long Tail, and many others), Crowdsourcing is packed with examples of how companies are leveraging networks of people on the Internet to innovate, collaborate, disrupt business models, and solve real business problems. All great stuff.

Then I land and my phone rings. It's a reporter who's asks me about the latest United Airlines story. Since I'm not yet monitoring news feeds from several thousand feet, I say "What story?" He explains that at 1am on Sunday of this week a story with the headline "UAL Files for Bankruptcy" appeared on the "most popular" list of the Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper Web site. It then got picked up by Google News, summarized by a securities analyst, and United Airlines stock proceeded to tank by 75%. The problem: the story was from 2002.

I've never claimed that Technology Populism - a trend in which individual people provision the technology tools, information, and networks they need - is all positive. If anything, this example would say it's making business more fragile. But I'm also pretty confident no person or company can control the trend completely. And this incident does make me ask two questions:

  • Does the risk an individual worker poses outweigh the upside of widepread interaction, communication, and collaboration of "crowds"?
  • In an age of broadband at home, iPhones, Blackberries, and more, what (if anything) can IT leaders do to help balance technology control and chaos?

Somehow I doubt we'll solve these quickly. I've got my own theories, but comments are welcome.

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Comments

re: The Dark Side Of Web 2.0 And Technology Populism

Great post. A lot of people only look at the positives and never highlight the potential downfalls like you do.I work for Wired and actually interviewed Jeff about this topic, and he talks about the critics of crowdsourcing. You might find it interesting:http://thehopkinsonreport.com/2008/08/27/episode-19-interview-with-wireds-jeff-howe-author-of-crowdsourcing/

re: The Dark Side Of Web 2.0 And Technology Populism

As cliche as that expression about a team only being "as strong as its weakest link" may be - I think it applies strongly to crowdsourcing. While the cumulative effect of a lot of people collaborating to solve a problem is extremely powerful - you have to be aggressive about finding that unreliable bottom x- percent that compromise the integrity of the data. And when you entrust quality control to a system (rather than direct oversight by someone who has the necessary context), these sorts of huge mistakes don't get caught. We're always in such a rush to find an easy fix and to "automate" the solution to a problem. But anytime the fix seems easy, these types of inaccuracies and hits on quality are right around the corner.