We Are Smarter Than Me

I ran across a note today about a new collaborative book project called We Are Smarter Than Me, where over 900 participants are collectively writing a new business book using a wiki. The WSJ writes: "The effort is inspired, in part, by the best-known wiki-produced work — Wikipedia, a not-for-profit online encyclopedia. Despite occasional hiccups, Wikipedia is increasingly regarded as a reliable source for information, aided by community-enforced rules that it can’t contain either personal points of view or original research… The wiki book… will explore how businesses can use online communities, consumer-generated media such as blogs, and other Web content to help in their marketing, pricing, research and service."

It’s big news in the publishing world largely because the contributors are unpaid (gasp!). But the more interesting question to me is whether the wiki infrastructure will work for this kind of project. As I discussed a few days ago with regard to James Surowiecki’s book, exploiting "the wisdom of crowds" seems to depend crucially on the mechanisms and institutions exploited to gather and organize the collective wisdom.

One problem he notes in juries and other committee discussions is that certain people tend to dominate – generally, simply by talking more. People who talk more are seen as more authoritative by other group members. In the wiki environment, we might expect certain people to write more, to edit more, and just generally participate more. These will not necessarily be the ones with the most to contribute. There needs to be a mechanism by which everyone is motivated to participate and to speak up when they disagree about a direction that the discussion is taken, otherwise they may fall into the groupthink trap where many people privately disagree but each assumes he is in the minority.

I would suggest that they enhance the wiki with some kind of voting mechanism whereby the larger group can approve or reject chapters. Perhaps contributors could be encouraged to produce a few different versions and the group could vote to choose between them. Voting is a good mechanism to collect opinions from everyone and guard against dominance by a vocal minority. Ideally they could find a way to combine voting with the free-wheeling wiki environment and hope to gain the benefits of both.

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  • My hunch is that although I agree the mechanism for gathering individual evaluations is critical, the outcome will be garbage unless each person is motivated to do their best. This is why betting works well as a predictor (people want to win money prizes), and why democratic elections work well as a way of choosing between parties (the voters have to live with the consequences – which is a reason why ex-pats should not be allowed to vote). The most famous scientific collaboration/ fusion was the invented personage of Bourbaki as a way of some French mathemeticians publishing their ideas – but within the elite it was known who participated, and each will have felt that their career was impacted by what ‘Bourbaki’ wrote.

    With this book, a large number of unpaid authors could be a recipe for irresponsibility and low quality – unless the authors are identified and held individually responsible (in some way – it could be informal) for the content of the book.

  • Robbie Muffin

    I’m very interested in this because I write internet software — in one incarnation of my work. ^^ A concern is that, in applications like wikipedia, there is much noise in general, only through the unifying force of the devoted (and possibly oppressive) minority does the work take form.

    There are topics in wikipedia where people are ousted from their positions as dictator, even benevolent dictator, by the interests of other active members (this actually happened to the founder of the entire project, in some of his areas of interest), and areas as well where people wish “the graffiti” would stop. (ie, it is a “pure” democracy with all the problems you suggest and more, but quite a bit of resilience as well.)

    The second problem would surely amplify with a simple voting mechanism, so some form of semi-majority qualifications would have to be erected on the voting (ie, people who contribute more often count more, but not those who contribute to the topic). Even if you wanted a representative democracy in a project like wikipedia, could you implement that mechanism effectively in a uniform manner without it being hijackable? And would it still be worth it — I mean, if you elected only certain votes to count would the general concensus drive the material?

    I think this idea of yours was actually discussed but I’m not sure to what extent the current content guidelines and other norms reflect that direction.