The value of the online hive mind

byVipulNaik5y9th Apr 201421 comments

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The phrase "wisdom of crowds" was made popular in James Surowiecki's eponymous book. The idea of aggregating a diverse range of opinions has been proposed in different forms, ranging from polling to prediction markets. Empirically, prediction markets perform somewhat better than crude polling, but just the act of aggregation itself improves significantly over not aggregating. Even crude aggregation mechanisms can be beneficial.

Aggregation over larger numbers of people can be beneficial even if most people aren't experts. However, it's important to note that aggregation is beneficial only if enough people have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the subject, and those who don't know anything are either unbiased or their biases cancel out(see The Myth of the Rational Voter for more). Aggregation with a certain level of filtering to sieve out the signal from the noise can overcome the problem of ignorance or even bias, as long as there is enough signal on the whole (i.e., enough people in absolute terms who know what they're talking about).

When you're stuck with a question, whether personal, professional, or academic, it is often effective to turn to the hive mind for suggestions. Not that the hive mind can, or should, make your decisions for you. But it can offer valuable input that would otherwise take you a lot of time to collect.

In the past, few people had access to the wisdom of the hive mind when it came to their own questions. Now, however, we have the Internet, and Internet research is a powerful way that people can access the hive mind for far more specific questions than they could have dreamed of before. There are many different types of onilne hive mind you could access:

  1. The Google/Internet hive mind: Search what the Internet as a whole has to say, using Google as your discovery tool. There's a lot of wisdom out there. The advantage is that you can access a huge corpus of knowledge. The disadvantage is that you cannot ask your own questions and the knowledge isn't arranged in a question-and-answer format.
  2. The Wikipedia hive mind: Avail of an "encyclopedia" that's been written through the collaborative efforts of hundreds of thousands of people, and is regularly updated, to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and make an informed decision.
  3. The Quora/LessWrong/StackExchange/Reddit/discussion forum/blogosphere hive mind: Avail of stuff that's explicitly designed for intellectual consumption, including stuff in the question-answer format. Also, ask your own questions and get answers (though not necessarily quickly).
  4. The Facebook(/Twitter?) hive mind: Ask quick questions and get quick answers from a select group of friends.

Of these, (1) and (2) don't rely much on your existing network of friends or followers. As long as your research skills are good, you can turn up the same material regardless of how good your friends and followers are at research. (3) involves a mix of research skills and the quality and size of your network of friends and followers. (4) is very heavily focused on the set of friends and followers you've accumulated.

Is the hive mind actually helpful? To a large extent, this depends on how much the people involved know and/or have interesting things to say about the questions you pose to them. The narrower and more specialized your domain of inquiry, the more likely it is that the hive mind will not be any use. And for the Facebook hive mind (type (4) in my list), you need to have friends who have knowledge of the subject, check Facebook regularly, and are willing to comment. I now turn to my own experience.

What have I used the hive mind for?

The Google and Wikipedia hive minds are the ones I've used the longest, and they're both indispensable to my process of discovery and research for the vast majority of subjects I try to learn about.

I've used the Quora hive mind since I joined the site in June 2011, though my level of use has varied considerably.

For other things that I've been interested in, either professionally or as a hobby, I've found the Facebook hive mind useful. This was not the case when I joined Facebook. It really started happening around late December 2012 and early January 2013, by which time I had accumulated a sufficiently large collection of Facebook friends who were (together) sufficiently widely knowledgeable and spent sufficient amount of time in total on Facebook. By "sufficient" here I mean "sufficient to make sure that enough of my posts attracted valuable comment feedback that I thought posting passed a cost-benefit analysis." I've posted about a varied range of topics ranging from mathematics teaching to education in general to technological progress and social and political issues, and often learn a lot from the comments that I would probably either not have discovered by myself or have taken a much longer time to discover.

However, these general-purpose hive minds are often not of much use for specific technical topics. I've also benefited from access to hive minds associated with more niche communities, some of them on Facebook or Quora, and others on their own websites or blogs. Back when I was working on my Ph.D. in group theory, the Facebook hive mind and Quora hive mind were little use for my research: less than a dozen of my friends knew enough group theory, and those who did didn't check Facebook often enough. For the most part, I had to figure things out by myself, ask my advisor, or handpick individuals who would be likely to know. But I did have access to one hive mind, namely MathOverflow, that I used productively to ask many questions, one of which turned out to fill in an important gap in my thesis.

How good are people at using these resources, and what advice is being offered to them?

Let's look at the four types of hive minds mentioned and how far people are from making use of them:

  1. The Google/Internet hive mind: There is a fair amount of research as well as commentary on how people use search engines for school work and other research. For instance, here's a slideshare presentation from October 2010 (by these people) describing how people's web research skills fall short and how they can be fixed. I'm not very confident of the quality of the advice offered, and also of its continued validity: much of it was written before some of the recent improvements in Google Search such as Google Instant and the knowledge graph (see this timeline of Google Search), and a lot of the advice doesn't jive with my personal experience. But at any rate it's a somewhat well-understood problem where people are actually trying to advise others on how to do it well rather than debating whether to do it at all.
  2. The Wikipedia hive mind: Effective use of Wikipedia has received a fair amount of attention. Wikipedia has its own page on Wikipedia research skills, including some cautionary notes about the particular issues with citing and using Wikipedia because of its role as an often-unvetted tertiary sources. There are also other articles and videos on the subject.
  3. The Quora/LessWrong/StackExchange/Reddit/discussion forum/blogosphere hive mind: These are relatively new, and "best practices" for these haven't percolated to the people who write advice on study habits or general research skills. A biger problem is that a lot of people haven't even heard of relevant websites like Quora, LessWrong, Stack Exchange, or the appropriate niche communities for them. So there's some clear low-hanging fruit just in making them aware of the appropriate resources. That said, there are a few articles on effective use of Quora in particular, but these are largely in niche websites or the technology press rather than in stuff aimed at the general public. As described here, my experience with Cognito Mentoring advisees suggests that recommending to people to join Quora is one of the low-hanging fruit in terms of value we have been able to provide advisees.
  4. The Facebook(/Twitter?) hive mind: The problem here might be most severe, even though a fairly large number of people use Facebook and a reasonable number of people use Twitter. A fair number of people use Facebook as a hive mind for personal problems (such as opinions on a restaurant) but it's not used for academic or research-related questions as much as it could be. Moreover, its use in this respect is generally not encouraged and not considered high-status. I'll talk more about this in a subsequent post.

I'm curious to learn about the personal experiences of LessWrong users on tapping into the online hive minds of various sorts, including categories that I've missed. In addition, views on how effectively most other people tap into the various online hive minds would also be much appreciated.

Some pre-emptive remarks

Pre-empting some criticisms I expect:

  • I don't mean to imply that the only or even the primary purpose of websites such as Facebook is to answer one's questions. Clearly, there are many other ways people derive value from the websites. This post is focused on the hive mind component of the value, and does not assert that that is or should be the most important reason for people to use Facebook.
  • The privacy issues surrounding websites such as Facebook and Quora are taken quite seriously by a number of people. I'm not trying to evaluate here whether the benefits of using these website exceeds the (perceived) privacy costs of doing so. I'm simply discussing one item that (I think) would go on the benefits side of the ledger.

PS: Chris Hendrix comments on Facebook:

It seems to me that there's a logic of how to develop your various hivemind levels here. If you attempt to simply start with a FB group as your wisdom of the crowds you may not have enough knowledge to be able to determine whether or not your crowd selection is systematically biased in ways that don't correlate with finding truth. Instead I think there's a logic to building up each level of hivemind usage from the previous. From Google searches you will often be directed to Wikipedia. Wikipedia can then direct you to effective discussion sites (you hear about a discussion site, you check wikipedia to see if there are any criticisms of obvious failure modes). Finally, once you've found effective discussion sites, you've been learning what are useful and what are non-useful contributions. Since these sites will include a number of effective contributors you can pick and choose among this group to find people you can make into good facebook friends.

I think done well, this can be a supplement (or perhaps even an alternative) to professional and academic networking for answering complex and non-obvious questions (the less complex and obvious ones are simply answered at the Google or Wikipedia levels normally).

Cross-posted on Quora here and on the Cognito Mentoring blog here.

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