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ungroup meditations

October 19, 2011
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If the point of the ungroup exercise isn’t arriving at an answer to the question posed in the homework assignment because there are no right answers, then what is the point?

Glad you asked. To make the ungroupers become aware of the pitfalls lurking out there in the innertubes. For example, we had the typical ratings distribution provided by ungroup members: > 66% rated everyone a 5! While < 33% scored peers anywhere from 2 to 5. This is an example of group norming where a common concern of any person “rating” another boils down to a desire not to hurt feelings. Also, there’s a bit of the prisoner’s dilemma where possibly everyone’s grade rests on the rating so why not rate everyone as high as possible? Or conversely, rate everyone but oneself as low as possible to make oneself look better. There’s no way I can tell what motives are in play, but I can tell you from the catbird seat that not every student works as hard his or her peers on all the assignments. So, there’s no way everyone should get the same perfect score. Without this natural distribution of effort and outcomes our system of merit-based accomplishment collapses. What good is an honor society if everyone is a member? Better yet, when a certificate with a fancy gold seal can be printed on your HP laser printer, what value does that certificate signal?

This takes us to the issue of “leaders” in any group dynamic: there are people hardwired to take the initiative, get things going and then take responsibility for outcomes. These people “emerge” because they are psychologically nourished by being in a leadership role. My instincts tell me that the typical “super editor” at Wikipedia fits this profile.  Per Clay Shirky’s research, the Pareto rule applies to “tagging” activities where 20% of the taggers do 80% of the tagging in the creation of emergent “folksonomies” out there in the ‘tubes ; again, the leader emerges.

Grave implications arise from our awareness of this circumstance. How can we trust an online rating if ulterior motives are at play? What value is there in finding aids if the system is created by fundamentally biased individuals who would steer your mind away from contradictory sources? I know I tend to trust certain opinion sources over others mostly because of experience (e.g., I read Anthony Lane and David Denby in the New Yorker for film reviews and certain Amazon product reviewers make me feel better about purchases). But this takes us back to a very old LIS issue: authority and trusted sources derived from that authority. The ‘tubes haven’t made this magically disappear, rather the issue is magnified and raised to the nth power as sources breed like bacteria at an exponential rate.

If we add into this equation the well documented ability of the computer to foster dis-inhibition in the user, then we get a situation where people send bank account numbers and passwords to foreign aristocrats needing a little help with a frozen bank account in Nigeria.  Everyone laughs at this situation, but to some extent we are all subject to the soothing spell of the computer screen and the helpful information provided by the good people at [insert any source here] who tell us that we need not worry! It gets 4.9 stars out of 5 by users just like me. Would you be so kind as to rate your recent purchase? Boy, howdy! Would I ever? I like to give my opinion as much as possible.

More than ever, Caveat Emptor trumps Carpe Diem.

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