Harnessing collective intelligence

Harnessing Collective Intelligence

As I understand it, Web 2.0 is all about opening up content creation to everyone and this has brought with it enormous benefits and problems.

For me, the most prickly issue is probably the balance between allowing participation while retaining control. As an individual, I know that I like to contribute to conversation and interaction centred on topics of interest to me and that my participation creates in me a sense of ownership and affection for the result of that conversation/interaction – letting people become a part of a ‘project’ helps gather a support base for that project that can continue to support and expand it. This collaboration offers the opportunity to ‘harness the collective intelligence’ of these contributors but at the same time leaves the project at the mercy of contention arising from differences of opinion and personalities.

Andrew McAfee identifies one obvious example of successful a self-moderating community – Wikipedia. When I stopped to consider it, I agreed with his initial reaction of disbelief that a storehouse of knowledge could exist in an accurate, unbiased form when it was open for everyone to edit. But on examining Wikipedia further, it appears that such an encyclopaedia has indeed been created and maintained as such. According to McAfee, this is because the community knows that any dodgy entry will be removed or changed so that people generally don’t even bother to make them.

Another issue with harnessing collective intelligence is getting a population to start contributing in the first place. This has been a particular problem for corporate managers/leaders seeking to latch onto the benefits Web 2.0 technologies by incorporating them into workplaces (for example, trying to get employees to start contributing to blogs or wikis). McAfee outlines a few points needed for a successful introduction of Web 2.0 technologies but also comments that, even once the new practices have been accepted by a work community, trouble remains for the managers – maintaining direction. Since these technologies are driven by a community, managers have a difficult line to walk between directing contributions and stifling them. (Some managers permitted off-topic contributions on the grounds that it would encourage further use of the system). Giving users permission to help gives them permission to change the project.

In addition to encouraging contributions with the lure of participation, Web 2.0 technologies can gather contributions implicitly – that is, by setting up the system so that by simply using the technology for their own goals, users at the same time add value to the system. An example of that (as identified by Dan Bricklin) is Napster – when users download songs and leave them in the shared folder, they make those songs more available to other users. This increasing range of music attracts more users, some of whom make new songs available, thus attracting more users and perpetuating the growth of the system with minimal to no ‘active’ effort on the part of the users.

Once these technologies are adopted by a large number of users, the differences amongst the users establishes another benefit – diversity in categorization. An example of this is the multiple ways of naming the same file, thus making it more likely that a search will retrieve the correct file under at least one of its names.

When I reflected on harnessing the collective intelligence in the ways listed above, I became aware that the more freedom and permissions the users were given, the more they added value to the technologies they were using but, at the same time, that I was highly reluctant to share authorship of projects that are personally important to me. I think this highlights a critical dilemma in the development of Web 2.0 technologies – how to give users freedom and still retain a degree of control.


One Response to “Harnessing collective intelligence”

  1. ccrosby Says:

    You’ve highlighted a major point to web 2 here that’s so often overlooked, and it posed as a reminder to myself – that people care about the output, that sense of productive contribution toward a like-minded community (like Napster – uploading what have you solely to share data with others). A sense of pride and collectiveness in assisting others. These services are such an impressive indicator that we really are in it to help one another, but as you said it’s really an “all or nothing” environment that determines success and makes or breaks a system.

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