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Signal-to-noise ratio: Finding the sense in nonsense

I just read Mike's thoughts on yesterday's article, and I of course, had a few thoughts of my own. I want to elaborate on several points, so I'm posting here, where verbosity is perhaps more tolerable than in a comment on the article. ;)

I agree with what Mike said, and add:

Yes, the way the wisdom of the community must be managed inside the firewall and outside the firewall are totally different. We can agree that the goal of socialization in both environments is to create or improve our wisdom or intelligence. But to gather this wisdom, we must operate differently on the two sides of the firewall.

Outside the firewall, transparency and democracy are of the utmost importance. These two concepts deliver the trust that the data is not tainted or skewed to one perspective. Without these concepts in place, people will not contribute and community wisdom will not be generated.

For example, if reviews of a hotel can be edited or deleted by the site manager, the reviews are worthless because the scrubbed site is now an advertisement rather than a open and honest airing of opinions. And because we know that people sometimes post crazy positive or crazy negative reviews, we (the public) know that, just like in real life, we need to take the reviews with a grain of salt.

However, this transparency and democracy lead to OTHER problems. Problem No. 1: Veracity. Let's say I hate a certain hotel chain, so any time I can, I give them a bad review, even if I've never been to that location.

Problem No. 2: Gaming the system. Per the article, "If you have two or three people voting 500 times," the results are not informative. These issues decrease the signal-to-noise ratio. The signal (good content) stays the same, and noise (bad content) increases.

So while these problems damage the value of social commentary generated in public sites, they are necessary evils to ensure transparency and democracy. Remember Churchill's famous dictum: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (That's from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947.) To paraphrase: Social wisdom is better than ads.

Let's turn to inside the firewall now. Within corporations, transparency and democracy move down a notch. They are important, but they are not the most important. Accuracy and trust in the data become the most important attributes within a social system inside the firewall. People are making business decisions based on the data, and if they can't trust it, they won't use the system. Therefore, veracity is job one, and gaming of ratings must be avoided.

This takes us to the social volume knob. An internally used knowledge repository should have a social volume knob. It allows the content administrator to control and maintain the accuracy of the system.

If a first-year associate can blog all day about irrelevant topics and make misleading statements, does this improve the overall quality of the system? No. If a comment contains a rumor that is known to be false, should it stay in the system? No. If a disgruntled employee is negatively ranking their boss's contributions, should we allow this to continue? No.

A social volume knob gives the content administrator the ability to edit or delete erroneous or misguided social commentary. It also enables control of who is allowed to blog (only experts please). It also provides reports and statistics on social use so we can identify when the system is being misused. And because users are logged in, it prevents gaming of ratings by only allowing one person, one vote.

The social volume knob must be used with care. If it is seen as dictatorial or capricious, it can damage transparency and democracy to the point where the system and its ability to gather social wisdom will be harmed. But used with care, the social volume knob has the opposite effect. It removes junk from the system and improves overall quality.

Remember the old adage "garbage in, garbage out." With a social volume knob, you can catch and eliminate the garbage before it finds its way into a business decision. In essence, a social volume knob increases the signal-to-noise ratio. More signal (high-quality content), less noise (low-quality content). This is the nirvana of a inside-the-firewall social knowledge application.

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