Sunday, 31 August 2008

How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (and Wikipedia articles)

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was selected as presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate on Friday, and her Wikipedia article has seen a predictable explosion in editing activity. From the article's creation in 2005, up until the announcement on Friday, the article had been edited something like 900 times. Since then, however, it's been edited nearly 2000 times again.

What's more interesting is how the article was edited before the announcement was made. Ben Yates mentions this NPR story detailing edits made to the page by a user called Young Trigg, who may or may not have been Palin herself (or someone on her staff). But Young Trigg was not the only person editing the article.

The Washington Post reports on some analysis done by "Internet monitoring" company Cyveillance, which found that Palin's article was edited more heavily in the days leading up to the announcement than any of the articles on the other prospects for the nomination. A similar pattern emerged in relation to the articles on the frontrunners for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination: Joe Biden's article was edited more heavily than the other potential picks in the leadup to his selection as Obama's running mate last week.

Also similar were the types of edits being made: both Palin and Biden's articles saw many footnoting and other accuracy-type edits in the leadup to the announcements of their selection. As a final piece of intrigue, the editors making these edits about Palin and Biden were far more likely to also be actively editing McCain and Obama's articles respectively than were the editors editing articles on the other potential nominees.

There are at least two explanations for these patterns. The first is that the two campaigns, knowing full well who the nominees would be, were editing the articles in advance of the announcement to ensure that they were accurate (or to take the cynical view, to ensure that they were favourable), knowing full well that Wikipedia would be one of the major sources of information for the public - and for journalists and campaign staff too - following the announcements.

The alternative is more interesting, to my mind. Cyveillance, who did the analysis, is usually in the business of data mining in the business world, aiming to collate disparate sources of public information to predict financial and commercial events before they are publicly announced. Wikipedia may be performing exactly the same function: a variety of editors collating disparate pieces of information in a far more powerful way than any individual could. It's already (un)conventional wisdom that the betting markets are equal or better predictors of elections than opinion polls are: a basic application of the efficient market hypothesis. In a similar way, high profile, highly edited Wikipedia articles like these are the marketplace of the information economy.


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