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The Ombudsman: Understanding Wisdom, Power, the Weak and the Marginalized

Roses for Stalin

There’s a lot of capital invested in “the wisdom of crowds” Web companies. This idea that “we” are smarter than “me” is generally a good one. I find the collaborative filtering that Delicious provides a great way to find new information on topics of interest, or to follow the link blogs of people of interest. Obviously there’s a big unexplored territory here.

Sometimes it seems as though the Web has no sense of history, no reference points outside itself. The concept of the “wisdom of crowds” seems to live in some kind of socialist realist illustration from the Soviet era. Happy, productive workers collectively producing the best of the best. The crowd’s idea is better than an individual’s—and you can make some money off of the value of that better idea. In this case when we say “the crowd” is “wise,” we give the crowd power over what counts as “wise.” And of course “wisdom” is always better, smarter, and by definition, more “wise.”

And yet, when you replace the word “wisdom” with the word “power” and start doing some reading you’ll immediately encounter the dark side of this concept. Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is one of the classics of the literature. Crowds, both consciously and unconsciously, create a dominant center and push things to the margins. (The opposite of The Long Tail) Sometimes this kind of filtering can be good and valuable, sometimes it can be cruel and dangerous. Instead of the Socialist Realist image of crowds, think of the image created by Billie Holiday in the song Strange Fruit. The crowd is a double-edged sword—it cuts both ways. The sword is real and the sword is sharp.

Jason Calacanis has a related problem with Mahalo. The wisdom of his editors creates the value of Mahalo’s search engine results pages. And there’s no question that Mahalo does create value. But if we replace the word “wisdom” with “power” we uncover the potential dark side of this concept. And that’s where we come to the concept of the Ombudsman.

If the future of the Web is really going to be filled with Social Networks and Distributed Editors filtering our experience, the future must also be filled with the Ombudman. Have the builders of these online filtering systems thought about how to make injustices right? Do they have an algorithm for that? Or is a human process of arbitration the only way to really set things right? Can this kind of process just be tacked on at the end? Shouldn’t it be an essential part of the structural design? Of course, the reason it’s not is that “justice” isn’t part of what creates value, rather it’s a pure expense. Although in the long run, it’s also part of what will make any such service a trusted authority. (See Reputation Management and Craig as Customer Service Rep)

It’s well understood what an Ombudsman is supposed to do, the question exposed by this little ramble of thought is: can an Ombudsman really provide a check and balance to the power of the crowd? Could an Ombudsman save Frankenstein’s monster from the crowd?


  1. Bits and Bytes « webnewser | August 20th, 2007 | 8:30 pm

    […] oh wait, he says we don’t need one! I post a long response on his blog.Echovar meditatesĀ on the issue as well.” […]