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Communications of the ACM


Can Crowdsourcing Rescue the Social Marketplace of Ideas?

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In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to facilitate information sharing and collaboration among researchers. Rapid and widespread adoption by academic and commercial entities followed in the 1990s. After the burst of the dotcom bubble at the dawn of the new millennium, several social Web platforms deeply transformed the information ecosystem within a few years. Wikis, blogs, social tagging and sharing sites, online social networks, and microblogs all significantly lowered the costs of producing and sharing content. This transition was hailed as a harbinger of more democratic participation in the information and knowledge economy—the realization of the "marketplace of ideas." No project was a better icon of such utopian dreams than Wikipedia: the revolutionary vision of an encyclopedia that can be read, and more importantly, edited by anyone, surprised media scholars and practitioners. The potential of the largest online collaborative project in history was soon realized, and the quality of Wikipedia articles reached a level comparable to professionally edited encyclopedias10 despite its reported limitations and biases. Facebook and Twitter appeared a few years later. Ten years into the millennium, democratic revolutions were credited to these social media platforms and phenomena such as the Arab Spring were referred to as the Facebook revolution.

It did not take long for this sweet story to take a bitter twist. Hate speech, misinformation, polarization, manipulation, extremism, and data privacy scandals became commonplace online. In January 2021, the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories on social media led to one of the darkest moments in the history of U.S. democracy, when the U.S. Capitol was attacked on January 6. In the same month, Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday, enduring the test of time as a reputable source of information. How is it possible that one crowd-based social Web technology stands as the most successful example of collaborative and healthy information sharing, while the other is blamed for epistemic chaos? What can this paradox teach us as we strive to fix the broken marketplace of ideas?


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