Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wisdom of the Crowds / Refereeing Soccer

The Women's World Cup ended on Sunday (disappointingly for the U.S. is all I'll say), and while watching the games I realized that stadium sports are a simplified illustration of the potential strengths and weaknesses of crowdsourcing. Here's what I mean:

The elements at play are the athletes on the field who are following a set of established rules, the referees who are there to objectively enforce those rules, and the spectators who attend the event to watch. Besides entertainment, the main point of being a spectator is to support a team. There are many more spectators than referees watching any given game, yet the referees are the only people with authority to influence the direction of the proceedings. When a handball occurs in soccer, for example, it may as well not have happened if the referee didn't see it. Some fans may witness the offense the very instant it happens, but the referee is the only one designated as neutral enough to penalize the player.

I actually worked as a soccer referee for a summer in college, and apart from a few hostile parents and coaches, I had a blast. As a former player, I loved being so close to the game, and I enjoyed understanding the rules inside and out. (I would have continued, but it was hard to start up again in the state I moved to after college.)

This would never happen due to obvious practical considerations, but what if there were no referees, and officiating was done by the spectators in the stadium? Would bias be canceled out by those who wanted to see a fair game, or would everyone side with the team they supported?

The web at large has taken the form of a giant unrefereed sporting event. In some instances, there are referee-types of roles, with authority to regulate, but most often the model is that the crowd dominates, whether it be through comments, views, links, or generated content such as Wikipedia articles. When it works, it's great -- so great that it's easy to forget about why referees were ever needed in the first place.

Librarians are a type of referee. Academic librarians are not only knowledgeable about the hows, whys, and wheres of normative academic information, but they filter what's relevant and irrelevant for their specific patron group. The question is, when faced with an information world so often without referees, will people remember why librarians are useful?