Social Epistemology

In The One Problem with The World, Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) writes

My best candidate for a universal fix is to imbue us all with the knowledge of who is smarter than ourselves on any given topic. At the moment, without the benefit of that magical fix, we only have the power to accurately identify people who are dumber than us.

The phenomena in question is the recognition of expert opinion without oneself having to be an expert. This is no minor task; the efficiency of modern society is predicate on the ability of individuals to specialize in knowledge and skill, but such specialization also opens the door to fraud and obfuscation.


The stakes become truly high when the experts in question are politicians and the mass media in a democracy. Let us now think about how we go about evaluating the quality of mass media.


Wikipedia, Digg, Slashdot, Reddit, Kuro5hin, Advogato, are just a few examples of a new generation of media, which, compared to the old, invoke much less explicit authority, instead emphasizing the rapid summarizing of reader opinion. The ways in which this is accomplished vary from site to site.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where all content is contributed by volunteers. All the changes made to each page are kept, so that no information is ever lost. A hierarchy of editors and super-editors watch over contributions from writers, and work to maintain quality on the site.

Slashdot and Kuro5hin both run short blurbs of articles found on other sites. On Slashdot, the articles are posted by a dedicated, paid editorial group, and the most innovative part lies in its comment moderation scheme, Karma. Users are rated by each other, and highly rated comments give the author of the comment more votes in the future. The result is self-reinforcement of the community, and the tendency for opinions to conform.

Digg and Reddit are more similar in that they both take the format of a list of links to other sites, which readers can vote up or down. In this way, links shift in position on the list, and more popular links float to the top, while less popular links sink away. Reddit has different subsections for specialized topics like programming and science.

These systems each have their strengths and flaws. It is hard to compare them on purely technical grounds because different communities have built up around the different sites, and community has a big effect.


The design compromises all of them face are

  • Simplicity / Sophistication
  • Push / Pull
  • Accountability / Anonymity
  • Authoritarian / Democratic

Push/Pull refers to how the reader’s attention is sought. E.g. an email list would be very pushy method, while search engines are purely pull. This is important to think about when starting a site; one could start being pushy and slowly transition to a more pull-y method as the content quantity grows.

Accountability / Anonymity refers to the role of site registration. For example, wikipedia allows edits by anonymous people, but one can only build a reputation with a name. Registration brings down participation, but counters spam and trolls. Clever ways of doing this include the usage of tripcodes.

In the US, your trustworthiness as a borrower is determined by your history as recorded with credit bureaus. These are private companies which have managed to convince lenders to believe their assessments of the credit worthiness of individuals.

Using tools similar to the ones I described earlier, I want to build an site to help collect Taiwanese blogs into a news source. Currently, the most proficient writers tend to be the impassioned warriors of one side or another. This is a bad thing. This is also a natural result given how blogs work – when reliability can’t be seen, entertainment becomes the only value. I believe that by establishing a “credit bureau” for blogs, this can be changed. The task is difficult; it hinges on the belief that with the right system in place, transparency leads to trust, and trust to authority. But I believe that it is the right time for such a development – the success of the abovementioned sites convinces me.

Related: He who pays the piper must know the tune

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