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07 March 2011

I use Wikipedia, the online, user-generated encyclopaedia.

I remember that Wikipedia is exactly that - a user-generated reference source - when I use it for a topic I know something about. There are inaccuracies. If something relies on its users to spot and fix inaccuracies then errors are sure to be par for the course.

(And I don't know about you, but I am not above having a particular bias - be it deliberate or subconscious - and that makes me think inaccuracies are inherent in whatever information people upload for the site.)

I know I've fallen into the trap of confidently quoting stuff I've read as if it is the truth and I know a lot of people who think it has to be true because they found it on the Internet.

Can Wikipedia be trusted

There have been studies done which show Wikipedia's accuracy compares well to general books, magazines and newspapers but is not as good as specialist sources. The result is comforting and sort of what you hope for...

I say hope rather than expect because the pessimist cynic in me tends to believe the wisdom of the masses can't be harnessed in any reliable way. I am glad on the 10th anniversary of Wikipedia its continuingly successful online presence has proved me wrong and that its 'open-to-all' ideal has created a pretty good place from which to begin research.

Certainly, the \"crowdsourcing\" model Wiki used in a recent effort to raise funds to cope with its growth was reportedly very successful. That's another plus for its 400 million users a month and its major objectives to remain not-for-profit, volunteer driven and as neutral as possible.

But is the \"crowdsourcing\" for information - the fact anyone can correct and add entries - in growth or decline? Reports are \"the growth in number of articles and edits has levelled off\". The argument being that it has reached maturity. That doesn't really float - there are so many existing entries that may need verification or additions and there are so many yet to be written, let alone verified. Instead, like all good communes, I wonder if a group of insiders has \"taken-over\" making it feel unapproachable to new users and stamping it with the hierarchy of ownership.

Money making via SMSing

Online might be a big pond but it's nothing compared to mobile phone ownership. \"The Economist\" October 30, 2010 quoted this piece of data: 18 per cent of people in the developing world have access to the Internet. More than 50 per cent own a mobile phone handset as at the end of 2009. It had also found a study that showed that adding 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosted growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points; more communication and simpler, more relatively inexpensive ways to do business. One guy, Nathan Eagle has gone a few steps further with his company, txteagle. In a Stanford University article there is a fascinating explanation of his idea, which \"began in 2007 as a purely academic project, but the current goal... is to give one billion people a five per cent raise...

\"By enabling people to carry out work via web browsers or SMS and compensating them via mobile money or airtime, txteagle has become a market leader at efficiently gathering data in the developing world.\"

The flipside

The flipside of the coin: is all this \"crowdsourcing\", monitoring, and data collection leading to further loss of privacy and more government surveillance? You just have to look at the recent controversy over photos and tagging and compromising comments by friends on facebook for part of the answer. Every single thing leaves a trace and that trace can be used and misused. Surely we're allowed some down time to relax and just be, without the fear we'll find it uploaded the next day or used by marketers to sell us their latest product.

Even more sinister is the danger we may all come to rely on machines too much (The Economist, November 6, 2010). There is so much data I can't imagine anyone or even any group, except machines, able to cope with it all. Some researchers and analysts wonder will the machines soon be making the decisions for us based on the data, and could all our reliance on them lead to the death of \"creativity and profound thinking\".

How to be happy

Not to mention the awful dilemma of too much choice all this data and marketing leaves us. It's the suburban-Chinese-restaurant-menu syndrome where 1001 choices means we're paralysed or never change the order. The idea that we get offered 3-5 dishes preferably with some sort of recommendation from a source we trust and or view as credible has better outcomes. Too much choice is stressful, escalating into anxiety and unhappiness. There is a body of psychological and philosophical thought growing around the idea that happiness is about feeling connected with people, solving a hard challenge, fusing with an experience or task or another person(s). It's about losing your self-conscious, immersing yourself in the present and living the moment and the emotions. It's not about what we've achieved, what we own, what we earn or what we can buy. (Although, all that can be fun for a moment.)