Social Media and the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’

The topic of my personal research project is Social Media; the affect that it has on us as indiviuals, and also the affect that it has on contemporary society as a whole. The topic of my class presentation and the related posts in my personal blog have primarily focused on the affect that social media has on us as individuals, such as our formation and maintenance of digital seconds selves in parallel with our everyday, analogue lives. The introduction post on this topic can be found here. The message that I attempt to deliver in my personal blog and presentation is that, as individuals, we can tend to invest too much time into our digital selves, resulting in large portions of our lives being lived in these spaces, and as a result, a deterioration of quality time invested in our actual selves.  This video parodies that idea with a musical quality that I lacked in my presentation:

I will now use our collective class blog to expand upon the idea of social media in a broader context, specifically the role that it plays in contemporary society as a whole and the power of social media in harnessing the unlimited potential of the co-creation and sharing of ideas among individuals for the benefit of society. This idea is known as ‘Digital Humanitarianism’ which I briefly touched upon in this post.

In this Ted Talks video, Clay Shirky briefly outlines advances in media that have aided human interaction. The first of these, and the topic of Sinead‘s class presentation, was the printing press. Then followed conversational media such as the telegraph and then the telephone. These were followed by radio and then television. Technology such as the telephone provided us with ‘one-to-one’ interaction, while advances such as the radio resulted in a ‘one-to-many’ form of interaction.

Today, as a result of social media, we have this:

Above, is Bill Cheswick’s Internet Mapping Project in which he traces the edges of individual networks and then colour-codes them. This image beautifully illustrates the social scale of networks which the internet and social media allow to interact. While previously media only allowed limited ‘one-to-one’ or ‘one-to-many’ interaction, according to Clay Shirky: “the internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time.” Essentially, allowing ‘many-to-many’ interaction on a large scale, international medium for the first time. Social media has become the mode of transport for all the previously discussed modes of communication such as video and phone technology. Social media sites catering for specific interests now allow users to watch, read, or experience the same content, while simultaneously discussing it, regardless of space or time.

While the personal benefits of such interaction are obvious, there are also global benefits of social media and the instant interaction and sharing which it provides a platform for. Particularly in the coverage of, and reaction to, global disaters.

Here are two videos; the first is a news broadcast from 03/11/2011 reporting on the tsunami which was devestating Japan:

The second video is a piece of citizen footage, filmed by a handheld video recording device on location, and uploaded to the internet:

Which video was more powerful? Which video gave you a more vivid and honest depiction of the experience of the disaster?

For me, without a doubt, it was the second video. And this is why; According to James Surowiecki, citizen journalism and social media will play a major role in the future of world news coverage, and digital humanitarianism. Surowiecki states, in this Ted Talks video, that the tsunami disaster was the seminal moment when social media, and particularly the Blogsphere, came of age. During and following the disaster, bloggers came together to give us a far more powerful experience of the tsunami that mainstream news simply could not achieve. People adding so much content such as their personal accounts and videos of the disaster at ground level, and dedicating time to link and tag these posts accordingly was done for free, with no other intent but to share their stories. While very few individuals make a living off blogging, most of these people do it simply for the social capital.

This, according to Surowiecki, is the great genious of the internet. People have found a way to collaborate and create and share, without any money at all. This has resulted in expanding our established ideologies such as ‘value=money’ or that we must pay for something for it to be of any quality. We all have something to contribute, and if we collaborate and share it without capitalistic goals, we can create beautiful, and powerful things. And this is why I, personally, am fascinated with the potential that social media holds for the future of our society. The Wisdom of Crowds, also written by Surowiecki, touches on this collective potential of groups of people working together, and the fact that group intelligence is far greater than that of the individual. Often the collective intelligence of a group can be far greater than that of even the smartest person within that group. This is why social media’s focus on creating networks of individuals, and providing a space for ideas to travel freely, is integral to the future quality of what we experience on the world wide web.

While social media is a utopic space to nurture this collective intelligence by allowing free collaborative networking, the rapidity of social media also results in great advances on the humanitarian front, particularly in terms of awareness. A case in point is the earthquake in China in May of 2008 which was announced on Twitter several minutes before the US Geological Survey. This resulted in a shift of the established paradigm of a government which informs its citizens, to a citizen body that informs its government but also the world. This act was one of many which contributed to the return of agency to the citizens of cities and nations world wide. Within half a dayof the earthquake, as a result of social media sites sharing news of the disaster, donations webpages were set up with donations pouring in:

Image taken from Clay Shirky Ted Talks video.

Evidently, social media has far more potential than simply being a means of maintaining idyllic, digital second selves through sites such as Facebook:

Other mediums, particularly the blogsphere, are encouraging collaborative interaction of creative individuals, which in turn, results in the production of powerful, passionate representations of the world around us, that traditional capitalist institutes cannot match. If we can avoid the addictive tendencies of those from the preivious ‘Gotta Share’ video, we can make a difference in the quality of content that is produced in today’s digital age. As well as this, social media is playing an increasing role in the humanitarian field, offering powerful ground level coverage, as well as rapid response and support, to global disasters such as the Japanese tsunami. In the words of Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter: “When you give people easier ways to share information, more good things happen.”

Works Cited:

 Ted Talks Videos

Lewis, Paul. “Citizen journalism.”

Shirky, Clay. “How social media can make history.”

Surowiecki, James. “When social media became news.”

Williams, Evan. “Listening to Twitter users.”


Newspaper Articles

‘Sichuan Earthquake’ New York Times. Accessed May 15 2012.


Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books. 2004.


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