Algorithmic Authority versus Digital Curation: The spectrum’s edge


Clay Shirky has coalesced some thoughts around the notion of algorithmic authority. In it he talks about the nature of authority within the context of news, and notes that more people are trusting classes of aggregators and filters  such as Google, Twitter and Wikipedia.

He explores the social characteristic of trust – a person’s willingness to accept another as an authority on a topic has a direct colloration to the depth to which “some other group has vouched, formally or informally, for (their) trustworthiness”.

Clay continues:

Authority thus performs a dual function; looking to authorities is a way of increasing the likelihood of being right, and of reducing the penalty for being wrong. An authoritative source isn’t just a source you trust; it’s a source you and other members of your reference group trust together. This is the non-lawyer’s version of “due diligence”; it’s impossible to be right all the time, but it’s much better to be wrong on good authority than otherwise, because if you’re wrong on good authority, it’s not your fault.

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.” This model of authority differs from personal or institutional authority.

Clay notes that there is a spectrum of authority – for example, from basic conversational facts to legally admissible evidence. He further points out that:

Authority is a social agreement, not a culturally independent fact. Authority is as authority does.

By this he means that your acceptance of Wikipedia for providing facts you’d be prepared to front in dinner conversation is based on your experience of fact-veracity previously, but even more importantly of the experiences of others who influence you in this area.

This is a fascinating discussion, especially in light of the growing trend towards digital curation – understanding curators to be expert authorities on narrowly defined topics.

Algorithmic authority seems to be at one end of the authority-influence spectrum, with the personal authority of category overseers/guides or sherpas at the other.

My initial thoughts are that the authority index is far higher for digital curators than for algorithmic authorities. However, I believe that it would be wrong to simplify this too much – authority is also filtered by purpose. It depends on what you intend doing with the information you are receiving as to how much authority you will give to the source.

[Picture courtesy of quiquenamib – flickr]

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