Tagged collective wisdom


A reflection on democratisation of expertise, collective wisdom and problem solving

Yesterday I was helping a friend to set up an online teaching system with WordPress. Just as each time I used WordPress, at first, I was amazed by how I could set up almost anything without touching a single line of code. After the earlier sweet moment of setting up the skeleton, the bitter part came – the system and plugins never work in the exact way that you want. There were tons of hacks to do and even more ways of doing it. Guides and tricks that I could find on the internet were countless. But the real difficulty was I didn’t know what problem I had and which solution would work for my situation. After a long day tweaking the system, I finally achieved a suboptimal work. With a disgruntled heart, I swore, as I did the last time and the time before the last time, that I would never ever use WordPress again.

It’s amazing how the internet has inflated people’s abilities and blurred the boundary between experts and common people.  Secret recipes used to be reserved for chefs or grandmas. Home appliance repair used to be reserved for mechanical technicians. Trip planning used to be reserved for travel agencies. Selling used to be reserved for merchants. Accountancy used to be reserved for accountants. Website development used to be reserved for developers.

But today, with the help of the internet, we can somehow take over part of these jobs by ourselves. We don’t even need to keep the knowledge in our own head. As long as the knowledge is somewhere on the internet, we can always retrieve it anytime with a search engine.

The third type of people emerges – amateurs. Amateurs are self-taught “expert” on a specific subject. They often can’t completely understand or handle the subject from zero. But they can somehow produce a suboptimal solution by hacks and tweaks, as I did for my friend’s website. You find more and more self-taught designers, developers, marketers, accountant, nutritionist, stylist, travel adviser, body trainer, copywriter, etc.

Many application products target amateurs too. WordPress, for example, helps amateur bloggers and webmasters to build up a website by themselves. Email service such as Mailchimp helps you to build up you own campaigns without  a whole marketing force. Web analytic systems such as Google Analytics helps you to understand your web visitors’ behaviour without an expert analyst. Accounting applications such as Freshbooks helps to manage financial resources of a small business without a professional accountant.

These products usually provide a quick fix to the target problem, but it never works in the exact way that you want. They also tend to become over complex to comply with users in different situations. To tune the product to fit your specific situation, you’d spent days tweaking the product. User communities, open forums, and blogs are made for amateurs to share the experience and help out each other.

Although there is rich information out there. Everyone who has tried to tune a system will agree with me that  finding your solution in there is almost impossible.

First, the information out there is pure chaos

By nature, user generated information is heterogeneous. Authors have different levels of knowledge and writing abilities. You never know to whom you should trust.

The information is highly fragmented. It usually starts with a question from a user in the forum. Then the question is discussed among several users. With a little luck, the problem is solved. Most of the time the discussion finishes with no solution. Sometimes the thread is linked to another discussion in another forum. And sometimes the discussion is interrupted by another asker and get completely off the subject.

The information is without context. We are good at describing the problem itself, but we rarely give enough attention to its context. Partly because we are lazy, and partly because we don’t know which context is relevant. Take WordPress for example, if a plugin doesn’t work out, the reason might lie in configurations of WordPress system, default settings of your host, compatibility problems with the theme or other plugins that you have installed, etc. But as we don’t know what our problem is, or what potential problems there could be, all we can ask is “This plugin doesn’t work for me”. Solutions to questions without context are rarely helpful for another person.

The information lacks feedback. People have little commitment to forum discussions. They may ask a question and never come back for the solution; they may find the advice helpful but never mind to express their gratitude; they may figure out the solution by themselves but forget to share it with the community.

Second, amateurs don’t always understand where the problem is

Unlike experts, amateurs, without a ground understanding of how the system works, usually can’t identify the problem by themselves. When they search for information online, they are actually searching for potential problems and solutions at the same time.

The information chaos doesn’t do them any favor. They’d browse through a large quantity of information, take the time to try and rule out different possibilities.

Third, search engines aren’t the best tool to do the job

Solving problem is not about relevance. It’s about helping users to understand their situations and make a choice. Search engines do a great job retrieving relevant articles based on user queries. But in a situation that people don’t understand what the problem is and can’t make up an effective query, search engines are just retrieving all the possibilities in pure mess.

Linear structure is not an efficient way to solve ambiguous problems either. Search results are mostly organised in a linear order, with the most “relevant” result on the top. Again, when the problem is not clearly defined and hundreds of results out there are just in pure mess. Going through one result to another down the list is the least effective way to find the solution. It’s frustrating to read a long article only to discover it is talking about a situation which I’ve ruled out earlier.  A tree structure or case-based result page, which provide a certain way to group results into clusters and rule out irrelevant results in mass,  might be more helpful.

With the democratisation of expertise, people will rely more on the collective wisdom for problem-solving. There is definitely some progress to do about how we share and make use of the collective knowledge in online communities. Systems are needed to help people process and represent the huge amount information in a more interpretable way.