Thursday, January 04, 2007

The "Dumbness of Crowds"

Web 2.0 communities and thier control of information ...

"Community. Wisdom of Crowds. Collective Intelligence. The new emphasis on net-enabled collaboration is all goodness and light until somebody gets an eye I poked out. Is it merely a coincidence that Apple, run by (as James Gosling put it) "a dictator with good taste" leads the way in tech design, while risk-averse companies using design-by-committee (or consensus) are churning out bland, me-too, incremental tweaks to existing products? And if that's true about companies, why do we think consensus will work on an even larger scale with "users" in Web 2.0?

Jaron Lanier, in his controversial Edge essay Digital Maoism, has a great quote:

"In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people..."

All geeks-and-personal-hygiene-jokes aside, we need the smell. And the most frustrating part for me is how the "Wisdom of Crowds" idea has been twisted and abused to mean virtually the opposite of what New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki says in the book of the same name. He opened a talk at ETech telling us that while ants become smarter as the number of collaborators increases, humans become dumber. In what is potentially the most misleading book/idea title in the history of the world, the "Crowds" in "The Wisdom of Crowds" was never meant to mean "mobs", "groups acting as one", "committees", "consensus" or even "high collaboration".

By "crowd,", I think he meant "more people", sure, but he also defined a big ol' set of constraints for how much togetherness people can have before the results became dumber. And it turns out, not that much. By "crowd", he was referring to a collection of individuals. Individuals whose independent knowledge (and "independent" is a key word in what makes the crowd "smart") is aggregated in some way, not smushed into one amorphous Consensus Result.

Web 2.0 and putting the Community in Control
One of the high-profile concepts of the Web 2.0 meme is community. Giving community the control. Letting the community make decisions. Trusting the community. And--if you're a lucky bubble-2.0er--letting the community do all the work while you collect the money. But this idea of consensus-community is not at all what I've heard Tim O'Reilly talk about when he uses the phrase, "harnessing collective intelligence" or when he describes Web 2.0 as something whose value to users grows with the number of users."    (Continued via Creating Passionate Users)    [Usability Resources]

Collective Intelligence - Usability, User Interface Design

Collective Intelligence


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