Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Michel Foucault in the Age of Crowdsourcing

It all began when I read this morning's Webware post by Stephen Shankland for CNET News:

A few months after the debut of Google Map Maker, which lets people add roads to uncharted areas of Google Maps, Google is letting people add directions, too.

"Today with our newly launched feature on Google Map Maker, you can get driving directions in regions where this was not previously available...In the spirit of Map Maker, you can correct the directions as appropriate," said programmer Vinay Chitlangia and user experience designer Sree Unnikrishnan in a blog post Tuesday. "Our hope is that with this deep editing ability, we will be able to ensure the most up-to-date and reliable maps ever."

With the service, people can edit details of intersections such as street names and what types of turns are permitted. Google also offers a guide to using directions on Google Map Maker.

The service helps with debugging Google Maps, too. "Finding directions is a great way to fix roads on the map that are broken, incomplete, or not connected well. For example, directions are incomplete for Devanahlli to Bommavara in Bangalore, India. This is because the road connecting Bommavara to a nearby main road is not drawn on the map," the Google employees said.

Crowdsourcing, in which people on the Internet collectively produce significant amounts of content or work often through small individual contributions, is a much-hyped concept, but it can be powerful when it works. Google also is using crowdsourcing for adding geotagged images to Google Maps' Street View.

My immediate reaction was to reflect, once again, on what Michel Foucault has called "the authority of the author." Reading fiction can be an exciting experience when we recognize that the "teller of the tale" need not necessarily be a reliable narrator. When we make the move from fiction to non-fiction, the reading experience may shift from exciting to dangerous; and, if what is being "authored" is a map and/or a set of directions based on that map, the danger may escalate to the potentially fatal. The question thus arises as to whether or not any of us, as users, can accept the authority of the content authored for Google Maps by those whose only credential may be that they are "people." Yes, that is a deliberately hyperbolic position; but in the age of Internet speed in a Web 2.0 environment, it seems necessary to keep putting out warning signs that say nothing other than:

Let the reader beware!

Where maps in unfamiliar, if not unknown, territory are concerned, I believe you cannot have enough of those warning signs.

Granted, the principle of crowdsourcing is that the "wisdom" of the crowd provides the authority behind the authored content. Thus, Google Map Maker has a Web page that explicitly addresses the role of the crowd in validating such content:

When you opt to moderate a User Submission, you will have the following options:

Approve - You can approve a User Submission if from your personal local knowledge you are sure that the User Submission is accurate both in terms of location and its labeling and does not violate the Map Maker Terms of Service in any manner. The user may mark features that may not be visible on the image. You can approve the feature, if you are aware of the existence of the feature in reality and the feature is accurate.

Deny - You can deny a User Submission if from your personal knowledge you are sure that the User Submission is either false or inaccurate in terms of its location and labeling. Please refer below, for more guidelines on the type of content that can be denied.

Request Details - You can request further information on a User Submission if there is any confusion. This will send the user an anonymous email with your question and a link to the feature. The user can then submit comments back via the Description tab when editing the feature. Please also see the History tab to see how features have been edited. You can also request for more information, if the user has marked a feature that cannot be seen on the image. By requesting details, the user will be able to confirm the existence of the feature.

No Action - If you are not sure of a particular User Submission then you can opt not to take any action in respect of it.

Report Abuse - Any User Submission can be reported if it contains: (a) bad or incorrect data, (b) commercial information or Spam, (c) violation of the Google Map Maker Terms of Service and (d) other reasons

This is nice enough as a stands, but it still raises questions. In this Web 2.0 world where users just jump in and "do it," without necessarily reading the instructions in detail (if at all), does this text have any real impact on how Google Map Maker content emerges and is moderated? More seriously, is there any "higher authority" to guard against content moderation degenerating into what I have called "Wikipedia fight club" practices? Then, without trying to sound too alarmist, I have to note that the Get Directions page for Google Map Maker happens to present an example in Pakistan. In a time when we cannot ignore the need for "homeland security," where potentially dangerous situations are concerned, we should approach any information source with prudence, if not the fear that the Bush Administration attempted to induce. At the very least we need to recognize that there are parts of the world (and Pakistan is probably one of them) where individuals may volunteer information for motives other than being seen as a helpful information source. How are we to know if there are any such motives behind the directions we receive? How is Google to know? As has been the case with the proposal that the Internet be harnessed to provide a more plebiscitary approach to government, it is too easy for the "wisdom of crowds" to devolve easily into the madness of brute force; and there are many parts of the world where such brute force can be fatal to the unprepared.

Whether or not such devolution takes place has less to do with the nature of information and more to do with the social context of the crowd. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid put it in the title of their book, information has a "social life" that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Google has a track record for ignoring the subtleties of that social life; and Google Map Maker may just add to that record.

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