Collective Action and Decision-making

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March 20

Mass collaboration and the aggregation of information enable potentially profound changes in business and politics. In this class, we will compare and contrast the transformations in economic life and collective decision-making processes brought on the information revolution. The discussions will also explore the role of open information systems on business and the scope for greater transparency and participation in government, politics and public life.


Assignment 3 due


Optional Readings

  • Divided They Blog - a paper showing trackbacks between political blogs, mentioned by Ethan Zuckerman in his review of Cass Sunstein's Infotopia
  • On a similar topic: Cross-Ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers, by Eszter Hargittai, et al.
    • Abstract: With the increasing spread of information technologies and their potential to filter content, some have argued that people will abandon the reading of dissenting political opinions in favor of material that is closely aligned with their own ideological position. We test this theory empirically by analyzing both quantitatively and qualitatively Web links among the writings of top conservative and liberal bloggers. Given our use of novel methods, we discuss in detail our sampling and data collection methodologies. We find that widely read political bloggers are much more likely to link to others who share their political views. However, we find no increase in this pattern over time. We also analyze the content of the links and find that while many of the links are based on straw-man arguments, bloggers across the political spectrum also address each others writing substantively, both in agreement and disagreement.

Class Discussion

March 20: Collective Action and Decision-making Just Johnny 17:11, 15 February 2012 (UTC)

In the Johnson’s experiment of the maze, I like the idea that the group had discovered the optimal solution, and it would be interesting to demonstrate that it applies to the real world and not only in laboratory settings and classrooms. I think it would be even more interesting to analyze the relation with the phenomenon of the social networks, in which the mass decision and participation primes over a handful of people making what they think is better for the society. I think this experiment has more sense than the Victorian notions that humanity, as a group, is just a dumb herd. I don’t think this is a correct statement, nevertheless experiments like Sustein’s in which was demonstrated that people find it difficult to defy the will of a group, and may polarize to avoid interpersonal conflict are facts that should be carefully thought. The question is if in fact this applies also for Internet communities, in which there’s no personal contact and people feel freer to express whatever they want without fearing opposition and being different. In any case, what I like more in the Ethan Zuckerman Blog review of Infotopia is that in some cases the predictions are proven wrong, like the Sunstein’s predictions that if we can choose our own media we will isolate ourselves in an information cocoon. Therefore, deliberation could be proven to be an effective way to accumulate information.Fabiancelisj 20:25, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

Even though group intelligence is more difficult to measure than individual intelligence, I do believe that a crowd can outsmart a genius. Imagine for example, if a very intelligent physicist is isolated and only surrounded by other physicists, he/she maybe outstanding in this field, but is limited to what he/she can do. However, when allowed to collaborate with cell and molecular biologists, chemists, mechanical and electrical engineers, medical doctors, veterinarians, etc… a physicist learns to conduct cell mechanics, biophysics, molecular and biochemical experiments, and has the potential to solve health problems, such as coming up with a drug to relax airway smooth muscle cells during an asthma attack. When a group of diverse individuals collaborate, they can solve problems that they otherwise cannot solve individually. The internet has allowed this collaboration to increase globally through technologies such as Skype and E-mail. In some instances, group intelligence depends on its structure and dynamics. For example, Megan Garber, from Nieman Lab, reported that MIT researchers found that “[g]roup intelligence is correlated…with emotional intelligence, The researchers concluded that a group is more intelligent and is more likely to solve difficult problems when there are more women in it. Simply placing very smart individuals together in a group does not make a group smarter. When I think of a very intelligent individual or genius, I think of my lab principal investigator, who has the ability to lead his lab members and make important decisions. However, he would have not made an informed decision without hearing the lab members deliberate. Qdang 15:52, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

I like the connection between the reality of crowd intelligence in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or marble-jar guessing and the concept of blog aggregates and online communities. It seems like this is a good argument against the dangers of cocooning at some levels. While a given blog/website community is likely there because they all subscribe to a certain set of interests or views, at least you know that if you're going to a big one you're probably getting the very best and most cohesive expression of those concepts. It may not make them right, but it adds value to them as a tool for educating yourself. Aggregates also will provide a balance to the problem that 1 or 2 of every group of 50 people will actually be more accurate than the group at guessing the number of marbles... but only in that one specific trial. If you follow one blogger religiously you are susceptible to their blind spots and moments where they were simply wrong. If you follow a collection of sites and blogs you will be exposed to the correct answers to most questions; whether you realize which is the correct answer is up to you haha. AlexLE 14:04, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

The articles that we had to read for this week were very interesting to me. I really enjoyed how the first article focused on statistics regarding various experiments and “Who wants to be a millionaire”, a program which I personally loved watching. Even though I respect and find very interesting the point made regarding the percentages being higher and closer to the correct answer for groups and less accurate for individuals, I don’t agree. Math and Statistics aren’t my field and I must admit that I’m not very good at any of them but I feel off the top of my head that it is quite obvious that a group would obtain a higher and more accurate score than an individual because the general population or “average Joe” is likely to get fairly close to the right answer which can be higher or lower but of course adding all the higher scores to the lower ones, I find it to be mathematically obvious that we shall obtain an approximately correct average score. Therefore this being said I find the “Condorcet Jury Theorem”, mentioned in the third article to pretty much respect my personal opinion on the subject. In conclusion I very much enjoyed these articles and I find that in some way these theories emphasizing on group work and force are exactly what Democracy is about. Emanuele 18:12, 19 March 2012 (UTC)

Collective action affects us everyday (or at least those of us that read news, shop, or blog online). For instance, if you use Reddit, most likely you're reading posts on the front page that were up-voted--a form of collective action. Zuckerman's article also points out "Amazon's collaborative filtering recs and Google's page rank algorithm." This had a huge effect on business (as we read in the long tail article, for example).

Sunstein has a valid point with ideological cocoons, but does seem flawed. I agree with Zuckerman and the others who labeled his idea as "alarmist." While it's entirely possible (as "Divided they Blog" suggests) for people to seek out news and sites with similar ideologies and have their beliefs continually reinforced, that is not necessarily the way most people 'read the news.' Greater exposure to new ideas or newspapers/news from far away, like the readings said, is a benefit that far outweighs the risk of people forming an ideological cocoon. Aberg 18:24, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

I realize we'll probably dig deeper into the topics of collective action and decision-making in the "Internet and Democracy" classes but I'd love to have a longer reading list on this topic. If anyone has any additional recommendations, please share. Thanks! Aditkowsky 13:17, 20 March 2012 (UTC)

"There is a certain notion of rationality that starts from the assumption that each of us is, in essence, a monad designed to maximize profit and pleasure." For me this quote by Scott McLemee (NYT Review) summed up the concept of collective action and decision-making communities have on the internet. This brings up the concept of 'public good' again and reminds me of why Wiki remains so successful - we, as an internet society/community, are acting collectively to produce the most 'public good'. --Hds5 21:04, 20 March 2012 (UTC)