Collective Intelligence and the Dumbness of Crowds

January 18, 2007

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating [sic] and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating [sic], communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

Kathy Sierra, The "Dumbness of Crowds"

"Web 2.0" has gotten a lot of people thinking about exciting new forms of collaboration made possible through the Internet. Services like Digg, YouTube, Flickr, and Wikipedia, and especially the way they harness the selfish impulses of individuals for the common good, are seen by many as just the start of even better things to come.

Given the astonishing advances in hardware made possible by Moore's law, and the relentless progress of Open Source software, starting one of these services on your own can be done for practically nothing. Of course, starting a Web 2.0 service and actually seeing it become a raging success are two very different things. What's the deciding factor?

It was while thinking about this question that I ran across a thought-provoking article on Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users. Although mainly focused on software, Kathy's blog is essential reading for anyone trying to create remarkable products. The article that caught my eye was titled "The 'Dumbness of Crowds'". In it, Kathy makes some interesting distinctions between "Collective Intelligence" and "Dumbness of Crowds."

The distinction arises from the number of people involved, the nature of what they're building together, and the process by which differing views are reconciled. For example:

  • Collective Intelligence a bunch of people writing Amazon book reviews
  • Dumbness of Crowds a bunch of people using a Wiki to write a book
  • Collective Intelligence - Flickr's photo collection and tags
  • Dumbness of Crowds - a bunch of people trying to make a photo together

I could add my own observations:

  • Collective Intelligence an online RSS aggregator that combines blog feeds from multiple sources within the community
  • Dumbness of Crowds a publicly-writable Wiki that serves as your community's public face
  • Collective Intelligence ten users of an Open Source software library stress-testing it in their own work, fixing bugs, and requesting features
  • Dumbness of Crowds ten programmers trying to design an API
  • Collective Intelligence ten developers who each start their own project to build their own distinct application based on a piece of Open Source software
  • Dumbness of Crowds ten developers who set out to design a single application that does the work of ten

The distinction really revolves around the degree to which individual contributions are blindly averaged verses being allowed to retain their individuality. Committees rarely create great works. Even worse - sometimes consensus is fatal.