Using selfishness to put crowds to work for you

Using selfishness to put crowds to work for you

Summary: How do you enable "the wisdom of crowds"? Part of the power of community is that a group of people can solve problems much more easily than individuals, but only if you can provide tools that make it possible for them to do so and appeal to their own interests.

TOPICS: Banking, Open Source

How do you enable "the wisdom of crowds"? Part of the power of community is that a group of people can solve problems much more easily than individuals, but only if you can provide tools that make it possible for them to do so and appeal to their own interests.

Derek Powazek has an interesting post over on A List Apart that details some of the components necessary for "a crowd to be wise." According to Powazek, you have to have simplicity, a clean interface, aggregation, and a group of people who are thinking about their own needs:

It’s counter-intuitive, but the wisest crowds are the ones made up of individuals who are thinking about their own needs, not the needs of the group. In the stock market, the participants are all motivated to buy low and sell high. Yet the markets are usually wise about finding the value of a company. Each person is thinking about their bottom line, not the health of the company or the market, but it works.

Similarly, website creators were not consciously voting for certain sites to be highly ranked, but the collective linking decisions did produce wise results. Nowadays, link spammers do try to manipulate Google’s results, which is akin to stock manipulation. Both practices are fought by the institutions that depend on unmanipulated results.

Altruism is all well and good, but people are usually much more motivated by their own interests than the interests of others. This is one reason why open source code is usually so much better than the documentation that accompanies it (unless someone is paid to produce the docs): People contribute code because they want to use the code. People write open source documentation, typically, for altruistic purposes. Which is why many documentation projects flounder -- the documentation does the writer little to no good, as they're unlikely to read it again.

Code, however, is continually useful, because it's often produced for "selfish" purposes.

If you're wondering how to drive participation in a project: Whether it's an open source project, a collaborative Web site, or some other endeavor don't think about what's in it for you: Think about what's in it for them. When you can find a way to let the crowd scratch their own itches, and provide the necessary tools to do so, you're on the road to success.

Topics: Banking, Open Source

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  • Good grief

    Have we become this ignorant where the concept of Adam Smith's
    invisible hand is counter-intuitive and surprising?

    No wonder we've elected a freaking marxist as president.
    • Hear, hear

      You forgot to capitalize "President" though.

      It's worse than that; They've taken the cult of equality so far that it's considered almost anti-social to work for your own interest... if you succeed while doing so.
    • We're all the invisible hand

      And it's reflected not only in decisions to buy and sell, but also in the noncommercial behavior of voters, governments, and private organizations. It may well be in your interest to try to corner the market, but it's probably not in mine to help you (even if I don't have a direct financial stake in one of your competitors), and it may well be in my interest to hinder you, so don't blame me if I decide I don't want to cooperate, or if I try to convince my neighbors and yours that your efforts are not in their interest either. Actually admiring you for being "successful" would, from that point of view, be insane.

      Too often, the free market is used as an excuse for the morality of schoolyard bullies (neutrality is required of all bystanders), but it may be possible that by rescuing my neighbor from the bully (what the bully would regard as unwarranted interference), I avoid becoming the bully's next victim. Besides, my neighbor might return the favor some day.

      Like it or not, humans are social creatures and interdependency is a fact of life. Thus, by regarding the interests of my fellow human beings as equal to my own), I'm likely helping myself more effectively than if I focused exclusively on my own well being.

      John L. Ries
    • Know Your History

      Before you go spouting misdirected anti-liberal propoganda.

      Barack Obama is not a Marxist or Communist. Barack Obama is following the same course as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did with his New Deal plan of 1932 - enact banking reform, jobs programs, and public spending to restart the American economy and pull the US out of the Great Depression.

      Those measures were successful. The alternative is deregulation and "trickle down" economics as we have experienced since the Reagan administration. As our present mess is the result of these alternative measures, their continuation is not a logical solution to our present problems.'s_New_Deal.htm
  • Code without good documentation has difficulty reaching critical mass

    While some simple utilities can get by without documentation, anything else needs good documentation (quality, not quantity) to be able to reach critical mass.

    Even professional software houses have difficulty getting such documentation together, as evidenced by the popularity of the "For Dummies" series. Of course, it may also be that the supplied documentation is good, but for a technical user, not for a novice user.

    As a Technical Writer, I have enjoyed good contract rates as companies realise that good documentation pays for itself.

    Of course, good documentation does not 'pay for iteslf' with free software, but that software will need good documentation for ALL target audiences to be able to gain wide acceptance. Hence the dilemma. Pay up or die? If so, then why shouldn't the developers get paid as well?

    The core problem with free software is that it does not support the infrastructure essential for its own survival.
    • That's where the community steps in

      Communities of open source software users have a vital function for their members: a place for building your self-esteem by being thanked by people you help, a place for socializing with people who are interested in the same things as you.

      They fill the gap. Not only by person-to-person help, but also by writing community documentation, usually collectively. Look at Wikipedia, same concept.

      The big difference with commercial software is here, that the documentation is not written by the code writers, but by the end users themselves. There are a lot of highly qualified computer experts among those end users, even if they don't write actual code. They often provide high quality documentation.
  • An Ugly Mind

    Unfortunately, research and mathematics have shown that this is not true.

    ("The Price of Anarchy",

    Recent studies of optimal traffic patterns show that reducing the number of choices that individuals can make by a slight bit, which reduces optimal return for some individuals, can overall reduce travel and other costs for the average.

    As in everything, there is a balance. "Mobs" may sound great to the idealist, but they don't produce the best results.

    An example would be an open blog versus newspaper versus an edited blog. To me the later is providing the highest quality content, and is most appealing to the consumer.

    "Smart mobs" is an outmoded idea.

    Nash Equilibria...more appealing.
    • Traffic jams

      One of the things that inevitably makes traffic jams worse is motorists constantly switching lanes in an effort to get through as quickly as they can, thus slowing both the lane they're trying to leave, and the lane they're trying to enter.

      (sarcasm)But since all that is required to insure the public interest is for each individual to seek his own, this must be the optimal solution.(/sarcasm)

      John L. Ries
  • Open source never lacks of free rider

    That's one of the biggest issue of open source.
  • Flaw in the premise

    A crowd of dummies is not more effective than a single, brilliant individual, no matter how many dummies you have.

    Working for one's own self interest may not be more efficient, but it's usually more effective.

    People who are "altruistic" are usually just getting off on their own nobility and "sacrifice". Those who require others to be "altruistic" are themselves selfish and power-hungry.

    Bottom line, I'm not part of a crowd, a group, a mob.
    I have my own spirit, my own spark of divine fire, and whether it is more efficient or effective to be part of a mob or to follow my own self interest, I'm going to do the latter.

    This article should be a no-brainer, and anyone who has issues with people pursuing their own self-interest rather than some collective interest needs their own private waterboard at Gitmo.
  • One word :WIKIPEDIA.

    And yes, i am mentioning Wikipedia as a BAD CASE.

  • incomplete and flawed..

    Self interest is only one of many factors one must factor in
    attaining a goal with other people - a detail which must be
    balanced along with everything else.

    Seeking to promote selfishness as the prime mover is an
    inherently flawed tactic. Using the stock market as an example
    - hello Enron anyone? Even with all the criminal prosecutions
    every year from constant policing of Wall Street, there are still
    countless acts of swindling and corruption that plague this
    market and as far as choice of investment goes - we've all now
    seen where the self-interested masses have placed the most
    "value": the hollow future payments of predatory loans, price-
    fixed commodities (diamonds, oil, etc), war profiteering, and
    book-cooking corporate monopolies. The market turns out to
    be unfairly anti-competition, completely corrupted, and driving
    the world economy off a cliff. Great.. good job, capitalism.
    Unregulated self interest at work.

    But back to coding..

    The main reason why documentation doesn't happen is because
    of a combination of culture clash and isolation.

    The personalities of people that like to code are not the same
    as people who like to document. People who like to document
    don't gravitate toward code people, the code itself, or seek to
    understand code. People who like code gravitate toward
    function, and any documentation that appears to serve no
    immediate function is dismissed as superfluous. There are of
    course, rare individuals that span both sides of the fence.. but
    they're not the norm.

    Many coders are also traditionally solitary or a small isolated
    group. Isolation not only discourages empathy but it acts to
    remove it from a person's reality - therefor making it an irrelevant factor.

    So the proposed suggestion of encouraging the clash and
    isolation will just lead to further instances of esoterica being
    driven into the outer reaches of specialization - doomed
    eventually to be lost in obscurity. No matter how good the code
    is, if its pushed out of reach for future understanding then it
    will be forgotten - only to be needlessly re-invented later on.

    A better path is to recognize the many factors of human nature
    and personality culture to build and maintain inclusive
    community. I say inclusive because community with a purpose
    must have enough diversity for empathy to stay relevant
    between all personality types, making a complete project a
    common goal. That way, self interest, group interest, project
    interest, and outsider interest are all taken into account and
    real factors for every member of the project. A balance of self-

    So with an intelligent mix of coding types, documenting types,
    and the various other types of personalities being intentionally
    "included" in a project community, there is translation between
    the specialties and basic knowledge spreads. Personal culture
    lives inside of project culture.

    Altruism is not just sacrifice for strangers, it's sharing your own
    interest with the interest of others. It's tapping into the (usually
    present) innate human capacity to relate to other people and
    realize/simulate how you would feel as them.. knowing the joy
    and pain of others as you do your own.

    And besides that, altruism isn't even necessary for many forms
    of people doing things for others.. many people either by
    ideology or by circumstance are just compelled to assist others
    because it is entertaining to do so. Maybe it's a talent, a hobby,
    a way to socialize, a means to another end.. a thousand
    reasons could be in the mix.

    "Hey, you want a beer, too?" - Altruism at work.

  • Enlightened Self Interest is the Secret

    You're absolutely right. It works for democracy. It works for collective intelligence too. The more people act like individuals, the less they are "thinking globally," the more collective intelligence will be demonstrated. That is because nothing destroys the intelligence of the collective like gaming the system.

    That is what I have run across in our own little experiment in collective intelligence called Cogenuity. Cogenuity is a challenge based collective intelligence platform with a heavy emphasis on social networking. Contestants compete for the award on challenges issued by promoters. Nobody is going to sink any significant time or mind into solving anything if there isn't a suitable purse at the end.