Friday, October 5, 2007

Social transparency and the quality of co-created contents

How do you measure the accuracy and quality of what people are collectively creating? For example, on Yahoo! Answers, people post questions and tons of people respond. How would you measure the quality of the content?

What’s amazing about this as a research area is that it starts to touch on deep classic philosophic questions like: What do we know about authority? What does it mean? Where does authority come from? What makes someone trust you? When you ask a question about the quality of any information, you have to answer these questions. Who is the person who wrote it? Why should I trust that person? Just because Encyclopedia Britannica hires a bunch of experts to write for them, why should I believe them? What makes them an authoritative figure on how bees build their beehives? What is it about their authority, just because they’re attached to some higher education institution, that makes you want to believe them more than someone else?

When the Augmented Social Cognition research group tried to answer these questions, we ended up with an internal debate about what we mean by “quality.” And I think we come up with a model for understanding quality. We realized that, in academia, much of authority and the assignment of trust actually comes from transparency. Why should I believe in calculus? Well, because the mathematics is built on a foundation of axioms and rule sets that you can follow, which you can look up and examine. You trust calculus because there is a transparency built into the system. You can come to your own conclusion about the quality of the information based upon an examination of the facts. This is the scientific method!

What’s interesting is that exactly the same argument is being applied to Wikipedia. It says to you: you should believe in the quality of the information in Wikipedia because it’s transparent. Anyone can look at the editing history and see who has edited an entry, whether they chose to sign their name after it, and what kind of edits they made in other parts of Wikipedia. Everything is transparent and completely traceable; you can examine Wikipedia back to the first word that was written. And Wikipedia is relying on the fact that it’s completely transparent to gain authority. There is nothing opaque about it. I think that’s why Wikipedia has become so successful. It’s because they stumbled upon some of these fundamental design principles and paradigms that makes this work. They could have made the design decision where one can only examine the last 50 edits. Wikipedia could have come up with many other design choices that would not make the system completely transparent. Is it an accident that they ended up with a system that can be traced back to the first edits? I think not.

However, (and that's a big however!), some people are still having trouble with the quality of information on Wikipedia even though it’s transparent. Why? One possiblity is that they have an all-or-nothing attitude. Well, if one article could be way-off, why should I trust another article? They don't, and probably don't want to, examine the history of individual articles before deciding on their individual trustworthiness, perhaps because it's too hard and too time-consuming.

So one hypothesis is that readers don't have the right tools to easily examine and trace back the editing history. That's why the idea of the WikiDashboard might be a really powerful way for fixing these problems. Social dashboards of these kinds are visualizations or graphical depictions of editing histories that will make it much easier for people to look at the history of an article and make up their own minds about its trustworthiness. The tool will enable us to do fundamental research on testing the hypothesis that transparency is what enables trust.

One thing we have done is to actually ran some experiments to understand if people are more willing to believe in information if you make the editing histories and activities more transparent. More on that on the next post.

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