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How the internet effects us: “Network Effect” and the wisdom of crowds

“Network Effect” is a project by Jonathan Harris and Greg Hochmuth. It is a website — but the first website I have seen that is dedicated to being a work of art. When accessed, the website invites you to browse it and recommends you wear headphones. It then presents you with a collection of keywords, videos, audio clips, graphs, and tags. The keywords are browsable at the top, and each one loads a new assortment of content when clicked. This instantaneous barrage of information is overwhelming — it took me a could of seconds to realize the website had automatically gone fullscreen. To further add to the distress produced by this wall of media, the website informs you that you will be unable to browse it further after 8 minutes (the actual time limit was 7:50, a number calculated from the average life expectancy of a person living in the United States). So what to do? I leisurely clicked around the keywords and watched the audio and video change accordingly. It doesn’t take long for a visitor to the site to realize that the keywords at the top are all visual actions: things like eat, sleep, run, kiss, etc. Each collection of things is related to the action — but the videos are bizarrely sped up, and the audio clips overlap in such a way that one can usually only hear the beginning of a phrase. After 8 minutes of this: the website sounded a bell and presented me with this quote by Carl Jung: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Although I am still not entirely sure what to make of this experience, I think I can at least begin to appreciate what its creators were getting at: the internet is composed of an overwhelming amount of information, and the most visible portion of it is designed to waste our time and keep us coming back for more. Lasting happiness is not found here. To get that, we must unplug.

Although the name of the project might lead one to believe that “Network Effect” is related to the network effects described in class, it’s actually more related to the “wisdom of crowds” effect. “Network Effect” uses a large amount of data: 10,000 video clips, 10,000 audio clips, 100 keywords. All of the videos, audio, tweets, etc. were of course produced by people. But in addition, a significant portion of the data was collected by people, not machines. For example, each keyword has a list of brands associated with it. To associate keywords with brands, Harris and Mochmuth hired anonymous human helpers online through the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. The human helpers were paid a small amount of money to answer a survey, which gave them one of the keywords and asked them to name the top 5 brands they would associate with that keyword. This gave Harris and Mochmuth a sizeable amount of information, which allowed them to create a list of the top ten brands for each keyword. On the epilogue section of the website, Harris and Mochmuth explain: “In the world of technology, this kind of exercise is known as a ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ survey, in which a large group of non-expert participants are asked to guess a response to a question that would otherwise be difficult to answer. The Wisdom of the Crowds theory posits that such a crowd possesses a kind of collective intelligence, capable of producing answers that are close to the truth.” While we discussed the wisdom of crowds in class in relation to prediction markets, “Network Effect” is a striking example that such effects are ubiquitous and can be applied to a variety of purposes.


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