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10 Jan. 2008 - The Power of Seeking

Wisdom of Crowds

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.
I understand the speech of the mute and hear the voiceless.
---Delphi Oracle, in Herodotus I, 47

I now live in a time that I had never imagined – a time where no question, seemingly, needs to go unanswered. What I need to know, I can find out in minutes – whatever it is. Google gets my award for the fastest ascension to the status of “how the hell did I ever live without it?” To achieve this lofty status, Google had to blow past some pretty stiff competition from the likes of the cell phone, Quicken, and even, yes (gasp) Tivo. But I use Google more often than these other things, especially in these days of struggling up the lonely path of entrepreneurship. Now, perhaps the comparison must be put in context – when I refer to Google, in fairness I am not talking just about Google in particular but internet search engine technology in general, a category in which Google happens to be my tool of choice (the best tool IMO), much like Quicken happens to be my personal finance software of choice. So internet search in general is the context, but for me, Google is the realization of the power/potential of this amazing tool. And one thing sets Google apart from my other favorite tech tools/toys – there is no predecessor for it. There was TV before Tivo, land lines before cell phones, and ledgers before Quicken. If you say there was a phone book before Google, than you just don’t get it. Having quick and ready access to, well (a touch of hyperbole here, but only a touch), the sum of all human knowledge…that’s a daily mindbender for me. We have crossed a threshold. Life will never be the same.

09 Jan. 2008 - The Internet and the Wisdom of Crowds

Wisdom of Crowds

You have just gotten off an airplane in an airport you don’t know. You have checked baggage. What do you do? Simple…you do what everyone else on your plane is doing. You follow the crowd…and you find yourself at baggage claim. This always works. But why? Not everyone has checked bags. Not everyone is going directly to baggage claim.

This is the wisdom of crowds. Most of the people on the plane have the same problem you do. And they are working to solve it. If they solve their problem, they solve yours. And you know they share your problem, because they were on your flight.

With the recent buzz about the “social” web (social networking, bookmarking, etc.), I have heard some people revisit the concept of The Wisdom of Crowds, first advanced by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book. Some say it doesn’t work in certain instances, and cite such things as what Surowiecki termed the “cascade effect”, wherein a tiny few crowd members act first, and act unwisely, but people follow in a linear way, such that the unwise decision cascades down through the entire crowd, and nobody wins. In my opinion, however, the wisdom of crowds phenomenon could be the single most powerful way in which the internet transforms human society.

How, you ask? This too, is simple. The internet will solve your problems. No, not the problem of where to find good sushi (although it certainly does that). And not the problem of getting a new copy of your kids’ homework assignment, or finding a good used harpsichord (although it does those things too). The internet will solve your big life problems…your offline problems.

Let’s go back to the airport. Just as you leave the plane, I snap my fingers and give you amnesia about the flight. You don’t know the airline, flight number, or gate, and you don’t remember anyone on the plane. You see a bunch of people heading toward what you presume is baggage claim, but you don’t know which of them were on your flight. What now? Your solution is to find the people on your flight. More succinctly, you need to find just one, and thereby you will have probably found most of them. So…you search for someone who was on your flight. You ask a few people, and you will probably find someone. And that’s how the internet solves problems. You find people who have the same problem, and you follow them to the solution. This process is dependent on three things to work:

  • Your problem is not unique. I suppose it’s possible you may have a problem that nobody else has faced, but the odds are very much against it.
  • Someone has published information about your problem on the internet. This is the part I would not have predicted. It turns out that people on the path ahead leave lots of footprints. I have a theory that there is an inverse relationship between the difficulty of the solution and the depth of information you will find. Simple problems will be there (like Viagra for sexual dysfunction), but difficult problems (like surviving cancer) will have greater depth of information available.
  • The problem is soluble. Some are not…that’s life. Some have no current solution but will be solved in the future.

And it’s this technology…this internet thing…that connects you to the people who are working on your problem. You just have to know how to search for them. There are still many people who don’t know how to do this, or, more to the point, simply don’t do it because it doesn’t occur to them naturally. But the knowledge is endemic to the coming generation.

This phenomenon not only grows with internet usage, it becomes more efficacious as it does so. More people, more problems, more solutions, more people solving problems this way…more people talking about it online. And ultimately, fewer problems.

Utopia, thy name is hypertext transfer protocol.