the educational technology journal

Vol 20|No 5|May 2011
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Learning to Trust the Amateurs

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2011, all rights reserved.
About author

This article is part of Chapter Sixteen of Jamie's new book Lost and Found which begins shipping in September. You can order now here.

This chapter begins with a section exploring the benefits of affinity and then moves on to consider the pros and cons of amateur information - sources like Wikipedia and YELP. Jump to the section on amateur information.

The Benefits of Affinity

Once the thinker becomes aware of affinity and knows how to invite its gifts, the door will open to many promising opportunities that might have otherwise been missed.

When we download music on iTunes, rent movies from Netflix or purchase books at Amazon, these companies are quick to tell us that other folks who bought those tunes and tomes also chose related works that we might like as well. This kind of advice is based on relationship software that tracks our purchases and asks us questions to learn our preferences and our desires. The software then offers suggestions designed to please us. Lying behind this strategy is affinity – shared passions, preferences, likes and dislikes.

When you visit Amazon, the page will welcome you by name and provide many helpful lists based on affinity:

New For You
More Items to Consider
Related to Items You’ve Viewed
Recommendations for You in Books
Inspired by Your Browsing History
Additional Items to Explore

As if these lists were not enough, there is a link at the top of the page “We have recommendations for you” that offers even more suggestions. These might range from music to books to camera equipment depending upon past purchases.

When these suggestions first appear, many people find them a bit unsettling, as if strangers (or a computer) might know them better than they know themselves. It is difficult to accept the literary suggestions of a computer, especially since the computer has not even read the books or listened to the recordings. Eerie though it might seem, these artificial intelligence programs might know better how to line up pleasing reading for us that we do ourselves.

Compare this kind of book selection with walking into a bookstore where the books are organized on shelves alphabetically by genre. In most cases we cannot even see their covers!

Sometimes there will also be special sections for new fiction and nonfiction as well as shelves of favorites from store employees. Finding the right book requires considerable browsing skills that include glancing at covers and reading book jackets. If these early indicators are positive, perhaps we will open to the middle of the book and read a few paragraphs to see if the prose meets our standards.

Under these circumstances we might take a look at recent book reviews, glance over the best sellers and find the process a bit frustrating. The relationship software offers an attractive alternative that can sometimes work better than the kind of bookstore visit I just described.

With hundreds of thousands of titles to choose from, it is unlikely that we will encounter many of the books we should be reading unless we get some help in finding those we have never heard about. On the other hand, it is difficult to determine whether some of these suggestions are shaped by modern forms of payola — payment for product placement. Are we being told about certain books because they are “just right” for us, or is it because some company has pushed its book up the rankings by virtue of extra cash payments? So much of the search industry is willing to sell advantageous product placement that we must be on the alert for such manipulation.

On the day I began writing the above paragraphs, Amazon suggested I purchase the posthumous unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. This novel seemed a stretch when I first took a look, but when I persisted reading through several reviews, I began to realize that the author had struggled with quite a few themes that had also been on my mind. I ended up buying a copy.

The book proved to be a disappointment at first because of the writer’s brilliantly disturbing writing style. I almost dumped it into a trash bin after a dozen pages. The book is very thick and his writing is strange. But persistence finally led to a shift and I found myself enjoying rather than resisting. It was a book easily put down but often illuminating. It remains unfinished — both the reading and the writing. Affinity, it turns out is fallible.

As a speaker, I am often given reading suggestions by members of the audience, usually at the end of a presentation. Over the years I have made a point of writing these down and reading most of them. I have come to understand that they are doing something for me not much different from Amazon and iTunes. Having heard me speak, their minds have reached out from my message to books or articles that seem well connected. I might not have known about these works, otherwise. The article mentioned often in this book by Christine Rosen about ego-casting is a good example.

Running the Pipeline Track

The strategy suggested in this chapter works well for a wide range of life experiences — whether it be a matter of finding new restaurants, new museums or new running trails.

Central to the strategy is letting your friends and acquaintances know something about your passions and interests.

At the end of a workshop day in Hobart, one of the teachers came up to tell me about a favorite running and biking path ten miles outside of town. The Pipeline Track lived up to his endorsement when I took the bus out to give it a try a few days later. I doubt I would have found this trail or tried the bus if it had not been for his generous suggestion and the lavish praise he used to describe the bush I would enjoy on such a run. Since we had just spent the two days building curriculum to explore the whole notion of “forests,” it was especially fitting to end the week with a long run through a magical example.

I came to understand how important it is to let friends and other people know your passions and interests so they will think of good matches for you. Equally important is the receptivity you communicate. Are you truly open to suggestions? Will you climb on a bus just for a lark? Trust a stranger to steer you to some unknown bliss?

For friends and acquaintances to risk disclosure, they must have some sense that we are likely to welcome their proposals. This can be achieved in several ways. The most obvious strategy is probably simple announcements. We can openly solicit recommendations, as in “What’s the best Italian restaurant in town?” We can share projects that we are working on, as in “My latest book is about learning by getting lost.”

But there is also something to be said for projecting an aura of curiosity and openness. Aura is a somewhat mystical and mystifying concept, not easily turned off and on or applied like a body spray, but is evident that some folks give off an air reminiscent of a fortress and are not likely to win many suggestions. Others are far more inviting. Can one learn to augment one’s aura?

Aura — a supposed emanation surrounding the body of a living creature, viewed by mystics, spiritualists, and some practitioners of complementary medicine as the essence of the individual, and allegedly discernible by people with special sensibilities.

New Oxford American Dictionary

Some people are naturally charismatic, their spirit coming across with considerable power and allure. This type of personality is more likely to attract the advice recommended by this chapter than a more taciturn character, since that personality is often viewed as uncommunicative and withdrawn. Ironically, popular stereotypes of scholars often portray them as socially clumsy introverts. This stereotype paints them as loving their research cage in the stacks of the university library. While there is plenty of wisdom to be found in the stacks, this book argues for a wide ranging approach to learning, and scholars of all ages should resist any such stereotyping.

This discussion of personality is not meant to suggest that introverts will be forever blocked from the rich harvest of ideas outlined in this chapter, but each person must take a look in the mirror and ask to what extent they may be giving off the receptive vibes likely to attract suggestions. This aura may not come naturally to each person, but it can be cultivated.

The Club

Another way to augment one’s natural learning inclinations is to join clubs whose members share an interest in some aspect of what the thinker may wish to explore. The loneliness of the long distance runner is famous, but such isolation need not be the only pathway to illumination. In the company of like-minded runners, weavers or historians, the individual often finds enrichment as well as illumination as the group tutors, instructs, enlightens and awakens.

This process is not always a good thing, since the group may have a perspective that is distorted and unreliable. Passion should not be confused with wisdom. The main value of the club is the widening of horizons made possible through association. Ironically, one danger of the club can be the narrowing of viewpoint enforced by some zealots.

The Internet offers countless discussion groups and listservs that may provide inspiration and enlightenment with regard to thousands of topics ranging from antiques to gardening and heraldry.

Garden Stew (http://www.gardenstew.com/) offers thirty-two forums for home owners and gardeners, for example. The list below shows just a few of the many forums offered:

  • Flower Gardening - General flower gardening discussion. Flower care and tips, growing conditions, propagation, transplanting and more. 1069 topics 7699 posts
  • Trees, Shrubs and Roses - General trees, shrubs and roses discussion. Care and tips, growing conditions, propagation, transplanting and more. 577 topics 3388 posts
  • Fruit and Veg Gardening - General fruit and vegetable gardening discussion. Tips for sustainable living, growing in allotments, containers, greenhouses and more. 1056 topics 8633 posts

Forums are a great place to share expertise and ask questions. One member of Garden Stew posted a question about some horseradish roots she had been given that seemed dead and swiftly received a half dozen helpful responses.

In a similar fashion I posted a request for assistance on OZTL_NET (a listserv of Australian teacher librarians) in 1995 when replacing outdated films about Australia for the Bellingham Public Schools while Director of Libraries and Technology:

From: McKenzie, Jamie
Subject: Great Videos on Australia for Yanks????

Can any of you recommend current videos for us to purchase which share in powerful ways the beauty and wonder of Australia along with current environmental and social issues?

We would greatly appreciate your helping us to portray Australia accurately. If the source of films is Australian, we would love to have the address (e-mail or snail) and telephone number of the distributor.

This request was met with many helpful suggestions that would not have come to my attention if I had relied on typical American film catalogs.

Again, prior to my first 1998 visit to speak in Australia, I asked OZTL_NET for suggestions of fiction to give me a grasp of the nation’s culture. Members gave me dozens of good titles that probably prepared me better than typical tourist books might have done.

Interested in pursuing political issues and questions, one can turn to discussion groups like US Message Board at http://www.usmessageboard.com/ which describes itself as “. . . a discussion forum centered around Politics and all things that affect our lives. Some examples include Forums dedicated to: Current Events, Politics, Finance, Stocks, Energy, Environment, Economy, Education, Science and much more.” Threads: 137,333, Posts: 3,563,385, Members: 20,295

The challenge with any of these sites is finding the ones that offer meaning and value as opposed to smarmy, biased spoutings that show little understanding of the issues at hand. On discussion boards like the one just mentioned, you will often find more flames than light. In such case, affinity should dictate the level of participation. Are these people you would chat with if you met them on a holiday trip, or would you do everything possible to avoid them? It is fascinating to compare the level of civility found on the garden site with its absence on the political site.

The Pros and Cons of Amateur Information

Just as affinity can be especially useful when trying to align reading tastes with reading selections, there are other aspects of life and culture that can be guided by the comments and reactions of like-minded clients, patients and customers. The amount of information available now from customer ratings is both a blessing and a curse, as we no longer must rely upon the expert travel ratings of a Frommer’s when we can read through forty customer comments about a hotel or a restaurant.

The trick with these sites is to weigh the tone and veracity of the negatives against the tone of the positives. When looking for a hotel in a new neighborhood, how many people on TripAdvisor.com or YELP give it the thumbs up? If they rate it negatively, what are the issues they raise?

In April of 2011 I hoped to offer a seminar in Paris at a hotel that offered free wireless — a feature that is almost non-existent in Paris (the free part). When I found Residence Richemont offered free wireless, I wondered what visitors had said about the hotel. TripAdvisor.com was very reassuring, with more than forty reviews giving the hotel a thumbs up for good service, cleanliness and value. I subsequently held the seminar at the hotel and slept there for three nights, finding the recommendations spot on. One person had complained about bed bugs (but only one person) so I gambled and won. The bed bugs must have moved elsewhere.

The hotel was an exceptional value in a city that charges steeply for just about everything except walks through amazing gardens, and Le Residence proved a wonderful location for a seminar. At the same time TripAdvisor.com can deliver very reassuring information, there are other times when a favorite restaurant will be poorly rated and it is hard to accept the thumbs down of other patrons.

This conflict happened recently on a trip to Hobart when I enjoyed a wonderful meal at Maldini’s where I had eaten a half dozen times previously but discovered (after dining) that it had fallen to the 72nd position in TripAdvisor.com’s ratings of 171 restaurants in Hobart. Many of the recent visitors reported bad experiences with a restaurant that had little resemblance to the one I had enjoyed in past years.

If I had read these reviews before eating there this year, I might have avoided the restaurant, but that would have been unfortunate, as the meal was excellent and the service was attentive. Several reviewers blamed the decline they experienced on a change of ownership, but my experience was the opposite of theirs. This points out the danger of relying entirely on either expert or amateur information, as I have also suffered hugely disappointing experiences in restaurants highly touted by the New York Times and Michelin.

The recent ascent of amateur information through sources such as Wikipedia and TripAdvisor.com offer a mixture of blessings and disappointments. The consumer can benefit from the new sources, but skill is required to assess which ratings are trustworthy and which are spurious — and this is a skill schools should be teaching their students.

Reputation Management

Some of these online rating sites have been troubled by paid “fake” reviews offered by various “reputation management” firms according to a report in the May 21 New York Times — “A Rave, a Pan, or Just a Fake?” By David Segal at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/your-money/22haggler.html?hp

Yelp.com addresses this problem by filtering reviews in a process that is meant to report only the most reliable and trustworthy reviews, but they do not explain how their automated filtering process works. It is interesting to read the posted reviews of a local restaurant and then look over the list of reviews that Yelp has filtered. It is hard to understand the process they employ since they do not explain it.

What causes certain reviews to be filtered?
It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but the more we describe how the system works, the easier it is for people to game the system and write fake reviews. This proves frustrating for some, but the most we can say is that businesses should continue providing a world class customer experience and let the reviews take care of themselves over the long term.

The Times reporter is skeptical about the Yelp filter, pointing out that there are sites like Fiverr.com where folks brag about their capacity to write negative or positive Yelp reviews of your choice of business. On May 22, 2011 Fiverr.com offered 45 postings from folks willing to write reviews.

The person posting one of these ads brags of his capacity to write a genuine fake!

I will leave you a GENUINE and Researched Citysearch Review for $5
I will look into what business your establishment provides, find things to compliment upon and go into great detail while doing so. I am also willing to write about whatever it is you prefer for the site, just tell me what to type.

Reading through the filtered reviews of two local restaurants, most of the comments match up with what I know of the restaurants and few seem automated. Some are clear violations of Yelp’s guidelines and should have been filtered, but I would no longer limit my reading to the unfiltered reviews, as in both of these restaurants they have kept out both negatives and positives that seem genuine and deserve an audience.

This discussion of YELP echoes concerns that have been voiced about the manipulation of content at Wikipedia by companies and individuals — a trend that Stephen Colbert named as "Wikilobbying."

Engaging Students in Considering and Sharing Information

In learning about Wikipedia and other amateur information sites, teachers might ask their students to consider how they treat their city or town and compare them with other sources. I often find that Wikipedia's portrayal of cities includes more soul and spirit than traditional encyclopedias, so that I recognize the Seattle that I know. On the other hand, students might swiftly identify factual discrepancies that would heighten their awareness of risk.

The same works for famous people — icons in general. I spent much of the last week learning about Isadora Duncan for another chapter and Wikipedia was very useful. I would not restrict my searching to Wikipedia but it often offers rich information and makes a good starting point.

At the same time, I have struggled with the Wikipedia biography of Matthew Flinders — the first European to successfully sail around Australia and prove it an island continent — because someone keeps deleting or downplaying stories of mistakes he made. Of course, the same happens when you read his so-called "expert" biographies.

Truth is elusive regardless of the source.

Students can judge this amateur information for themselves by taking a look at YELP customer reviews of local restaurants and asking if they are fair and reliable. They may also be invited to correct errors or add value.

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