Future Media Fest: Who's Afraid of Collective Intelligence?

The afternoon panel on “Social Media for Collective Intelligence” emphasized some of the benefits and challenges of the emerging form of collective intelligence to marketing and journalism. Collective Intelligence or “the wisdom of the crowds” depends upon a group of people providing collective answers to questions or problems. David Clinch, the moderator and founder of Clinch Media, proposed that typical forms of crowdsourcing are scary for media journalists and that what is often needed in any media outlet is what he called “elite sourcing”: an ability to distill the most reliable and useful information from the stream of internet chatter.

Many of the panelists discussed their own experience with collective intelligence. Jenny Scmitt the Founder of Atlanta-based Cloudspark discussed the famous Tropicana incident, where the company spent millions of dollars to change their brand only to have it rejected almost immediately by the blogging and social media community. Steve Schwald, Director of News and Digital Content for CBS, discussed the pitfalls of exclusive news video that is picked up by other agencies and used without compensation. Most of the conversation, however, focused on how marketers and journalists can exploit the massive amount of information provided by social media to enhance their brand.

Collective intelligence is indeed an interesting topic for educators, as a business professor from Georgia State University indicated in one of the questions at the end of the panel. He stressed that a question mark should be placed at the end of the term, indicating that whatever emerged from the crowds might not be either intelligence or wisdom. Clinch replied that neither the internet nor Google made anyone smarter or dumber, the issue at hand was the sheer number of voices not their quality.

And yet, it seems that the panel did not delve into the cultural implications of the emergence of collective intelligence in ways that might go further in answering the question of whether crowds offer intelligent decisions. In a recent interview with Vinicius Navarro, Henry Jenkins explains that we are really caught in a transitional cultural moment:

the rise of participatory culture represents the reassertion of the practices and logics of folk culture in the face of a hundred years of mass culture. We now have greater capacity to create again and we are forming communities around the practices of cultural production and circulation. We now have the ability to share what we create with a much larger public than was possible under folk culture, and yet our templates for what culture looks like are still largely formed around the contents and practices of mass culture. This is why fan culture thrives in this new environment. Participatory culture cannot grow without the capacity to archive, appropriate, and recirculate media content; it cannot sustain itself long term without an expanded notion of fair use and a reduction on the capacity of corporate media to exert a monopoly control over our culture.

The transitional moment Jenkins describes is a powerful rejoinder to Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In the article, Carr personalizes the anxieties of a culture going through a profound change in the way it thinks. “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.” The article seems like the beginning of a cyberpunk thriller, where intelligence is being sucked out of individuals and placed in the hands of shadowy entities lurking with nefarious intentions.

Should we be afraid of collective intelligence? Is it just a matter of filtering, as Clinch suggested? Or does it mark a much more profound cultural moment, as Carr and Jenkins argue? The panel at Future Media Fest emphasized this moment as one of opportunity, where entrepreneurs can design new careers that exploit the intelligence of crowds. And yet, apart from new kinds of profit, collective intelligence can also provide new ways to enjoy media that aren’t limited, as Jenkins points out, to the cultural monopoly of corporate media. In other words the struggle isn’t over intelligence or stupidity, but whether corporations end-up exclusively exploiting collective intelligence for profit or whether the wisdom of the crowd can lead to a more democratic relationship between media corporations and everyday people.

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  1. This panel was also the source of my most re-tweeted tweet of the conference. Of course, this was just a silly joke comparing panel members to the character Huburtus Bigend, from William Gibson’s most recent novel.

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