OCSM Blog - Oceania Centre for Social Media
 This Blog recently reported that Google has bought Metaweb for its open-source database, Freebase, with 12 million web “entities”, from science to celebrities. 

Now it is time to question where this will lead, or more specifically, where the semantic web will allow us to lead each other.

The thing about Freebase is that it tags items so that computers can understand what they are about, and then relate them to each other by meaning.  Freebase enables the whole web to behave a bit like GetGlue http://getglue.com/ which allows users to rate things or discover new popular choices by finding out what their friends enjoy.

One shudders to think what semantic tags will do to the existing  imbalance between popularity and reliability of information on the internet.  Research already shows that we tend to follow each other like lemmings racing towards a cliff.

Adding to concern about the influence on popularity on credibility was an article in New Scientist (24 July, 2010) which demonstrated again what is sometimes called the “band-wagon effect” or even the ghost of “group-think”. 

The article asserts that sociologists have been searching for laws governing human interactions and social networks for decades, but now the world’s 500-million users of social media are providing researchers with a living laboratory. 

Duncan Watts of Yahoo Research and Matthew Salganik, now at Princeton University used a web-based experiment to demonstrate that when it comes to music preference, we behave like sheep (or lemmings).

To examine what made some songs more popular than others, they created a project they called Music Lab.  It used a website where more than 14,000 people could rate 48 relatively unknown songs.  They compared the opinions of experts with those of amateurs and measured downloads to assess a tunes popularity. 

They also cloaked the information some of the respondents received    to show that the number of people choosing a song influenced others into selecting the same one.  That is, human influence had a major effect on making some songs more successful. 

“So, like it or not, it seems that many of us follow the herd,” (New Scientist, 24 July 2010: p. 32).

This doesn’t only apply to something as familiar as popular music.  Even choices that require knowledge and expertise can be driven by mob-behaviour. 

For instance, by using Facebook researchers, Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Felix Reed-Tochas of the University of Oxford, have been able to show that when a new application becomes available on the Web, users adopt it independently of their friends’ opinions.  However, when the popularity of an app crosses a certain threshold, its popularity draws in other people and its adoption can expand suddenly and massively.

Suddenly the cliff ahead of the Lemmings can be a lot higher.