The new Web is digital, not analog. (See point number one; discuss.) By this I mean that the collective intelligence Web 2.0 supposedly marshals is most impressive when it sends big, distinct, yes-or-no signals, and worst when it attempts to offer more nuanced judgments.
For instance, eBay could not have gotten a foothold without its rating system, which establishes a track record for each buyer and seller. The system suffers from ridiculous grade inflation: “#1 AAAA++++ EBayer! Best ever!!!” doesn’t mean much more than “This person shipped me what she promised.” But if you see a string of 200 successful transactions with only two complaints, you feel better about sending off money than you otherwise could. The fruit of eBay’s rating system is binary information: this seller is okay, that one is not.
While such up-or-down judgments are generally useful, more refined distinctions, in my experience, are not. Pandora is a charming site that claims to have mapped the “genomes” of different kinds of music, so that if you tell it what songs you like – Chet Baker’s jazz vocals from the 1950s, say – it will bring you lots of other music that you’ll like, too. This is the audio version of Amazon’s ever-evolving list of book recommendations, based on your past purchases. Nice ideas, in both cases. So far, none of Pandora’s audio streams improves on what I’d choose for myself from its library of recordings. To be fair, I have learned about some artists I wouldn’t otherwise have come across: for instance, after I told Pandora that I liked the French gypsy guitar virtuoso Biréli Lagrène, it came up with the improbably named The Frank and Joe Show. But in nearly a decade with Amazon, I’ve yet to experience the moment of perfect serendipity when it discovers a book I really like that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
All this outpouring of knowledge is inspiring. If you were more churlish than I am, you would end up mocking the vast tonnage of earnest self-expression, the narcissistic self-documentation (in the form of Flickr photos), the craving for contact, the blog-based disputation, and the effort invested in metatagging that characterize the interactive Web. But I am not that churlish. I find it admirable, and deeply human.
But it is also potentially tragic. Many new Web applications are explicit about the importance of trust. You indicate your trust of certain reviewers or business partners and your mistrust of others. You build networks of contacts, and cross network barriers, based on stated trust levels. Wikipedia survives because users trust that, in general, it will be accurate, and seldom manipulated or simply wrong. Google’s PageRank is one of the most important structural indicators of trust.
In fact, every bit of the Web enterprise operates on trust. Web-based commerce has gone as far as it has because of the surprisingly low level of fraud and error. Much of my financial life is now online – paychecks deposited, checks paid, 401(k) accounts fretted over, taxes filed. And increasingly, my communications are, too. The telephone barely rings these days, although I’m in better touch with more people, via Skype and e-mail, than ever before. And all this depends on the basic trust that messages will go through undistorted, unintercepted, and in general unimpeded.