Web 2.0 Reversion to the Mean

I have a lot of reservations about the interpersonal implications of social media.  It makes me feel uncomfortable.  Until recently I couldn’t explain why.

Jaron Lanier, in his book, You are Not a Gadget, finally cracked at least part of the code for me. The group nature of the development and approval of ideas in social media pushes mediocrity.

The great thing about groups is that generally a group of minds tends to think more effectively than individual minds.  When I give an individual assignment in class, the average grade tends to be lower than group assignments.  But this isn’t the end of the story.  While individual assignments usually have a lower average, they also tend to have a greater range, that is, there will be one or two really brilliant individuals, and one or two who really don’t get it.  With group assignments, the “don’t get it” types get pulled up by the rest of their group, and the brilliant types tend to get pulled down by the rest of their group, thus smoothing out the distribution of grades (read performance) and clustering more around the average.

This phenomenon is repeated in many human situations, and can also be observed in the scientific world. It is called reversion to the mean.

And that is one of my problems with social media.  The very best and the brightest get pulled down by the crowd. Creativity, innovation and brilliant thinking isn’t always the most obvious, and doesn’t always satisfy the crowd. They often resist new ideas that compete with their world view.

The idea that crowd sourcing is wise just doesn’t feel right to me. Crowds can slow the pace of great discoveries and innovation, not, as was hoped, accelerate discoveries.  There are individuals within any crowd who are wise, who can, through critique and engagement improve someone’s ideas.  That is the whole point of the academic refereed journal.  These individuals have often spent years thinking about ideas like this, and are willing to engage with an idea to make it better. And they are individuals, not hovering in a cloud, indistinguishable from other members of the cloud.


Categories: Books, Social media

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1 reply »

  1. So like any other tools or innovations, the proper use is required. Social media is no different. One problem is solved (an easy way to communicate with many) and a new problem is created (mediocre group think).

    Your identifying the problem allows users of SM to take advantage of it’s power and hopefully not succumb to it’s potential weakness.

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