Jeremy Wagstaff, after giving a fairly in-depth summary of my informational cascades article, responds with the following counterpoint:
On the other hand, there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest blogs foster a healthy discussion and if someone says something controversial, it’s likely to be challenged. It’s not always easy to see your words criticised on the Internet but once you get used to it, there’s a lot that can be learned. And while rudeness and personal attacks masquerading as debate abound, in general my experience of blogs and the comments system has been that few feel inhibited about pointing out errors or making well-reasoned counter-arguments. Or am I completely wrong?
Nope. Not wrong at all. As I noted in this earlier post, it is possible to believe that weblogs, on average, do a lot more good than harm and still worry that informational cascades within weblog discourse can do quite a bit of harm under the right circumstances. Think of vulnerability to informational cascades as a weak point in social networks. Just because a network has a vulnerability doesn’t make it inherently harmful. We just need to be aware of the vulnerability and do what we can to compensate for it.
As a side note, I want to emphasize that informational cascades are not primarily about peer pressure. That’s a whole different phenomenon known as a “reputational cascade”. Informational cascades happen not (primarily) because I’m afraid to look like a fool if I argue with you but because I believe you know more than I do. I defer to what I perceive to be the superior collective knowledge of the group. In many cases, far from accepting the group’s opinion while rejecting my dissenting opinion, I may not even bother to try to form an opinion of my own because I perceive the group’s collective judgment to provide overwhelming evidence of the correct answer. It’s a work-saving instinct. Unfortunately, we can be fooled into thinking that the group all agrees on something when the don’t because…well…it’s kind of a long explanation. Read the article if you want the full scoop.