Thinking more about my post on Friday morning, I see a possible misinterpretation hidden in my desire to write “stronger” book reviews. The word “stronger” implies a competitive model in which the most informative reviews rise to a place of prominence (whether the place reserved for the three “most helpful” reviews on Amazon.com or the pages of those few magazines that talk about literature) while the rest fade into obscurity and are forgotten. I’m skeptical of attempts to adapt Darwinian descriptions of nature into prescriptions for society.
One of the amazing things about the internet is that from an aggregate of uninformed opinions we can approach a truth (big emphasis on can). Consider the case of Lior Zoref, who brought a live ox on stage at a 2012 TED conference and asked 500 uninformed conference attendees to guess it’s weight (estimates were sent electronically so that the average could be calculated on the fly). The average of all their guesses was 1,792 lbs, just three pounds away from the ox’s actual weight of 1,795 lbs.
This is amazing and comforting. First, imagine there were a bovine expert in the crowd. In the laboratory, three pounds could make a big difference, and only bovine experts have the training and know-how needed to increase and apply our knowledge of this creature. With the crowdsourcing method, however, even if the expert had precisely guessed the actual weight (hit the bullseye, so to speak), his guess would be worth no more than the others in contributing to our wisdom. At the TED talk, the lowest guess was 308 lbs (1,487 lbs off the mark) and the highest was 8,000 lbs (6,205 lbs off the mark). Yet each of these guesses and 497 others contributed to the average just as much as the bovine expert’s did. Value can be assessed – albeit with different degrees of utility and reliability – both in the laboratory and in the marketplace.
The most fitting model for how book reviews should be weighed and processed is the marketplace, because the problem book reviews try to solve is one of simple economics:
- Readers have limited time and money that they want to spend on a book in exchange for whatever form of satisfaction that literature offers (spiritual, educational, erotic, etc.).
- They can’t know which book offers the best rate of exchange unless they hear the opinion of someone who has already made the exchange.
Literary experts can tell us many valuable things that the average person can’t, but they have no more ability to say whether the average person will find a book satisfying than anyone else. As more voices join the conversation, the collective wisdom grows stronger, and, unlike in the competitive model, everyone who participates prospers.