Harnessing Collective Intelligence

09Apr10

The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence:

* Hyperlinking is the foundation of the web. As users add new content, and new sites, it is bound in to the structure of the web by other users discovering the content and linking to it. Much as synapses form in the brain, with associations becoming stronger through repetition or intensity, the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users.
* Yahoo!, the first great internet success story, was born as a catalog, or directory of links, an aggregation of the best work of thousands, then millions of web users. While Yahoo! has since moved into the business of creating many types of content, its role as a portal to the collective work of the net’s users remains the core of its value.
* Google’s breakthrough in search, which quickly made it the undisputed search market leader, was PageRank, a method of using the link structure of the web rather than just the characteristics of documents to provide better search results.
* eBay’s product is the collective activity of all its users; like the web itself, eBay grows organically in response to user activity, and the company’s role is as an enabler of a context in which that user activity can happen. What’s more, eBay’s competitive advantage comes almost entirely from the critical mass of buyers and sellers, which makes any new entrant offering similar services significantly less attractive.
* Amazon sells the same products as competitors such as Barnesandnoble.com, and they receive the same product descriptions, cover images, and editorial content from their vendors. But Amazon has made a science of user engagement. They have an order of magnitude more user reviews, invitations to participate in varied ways on virtually every page–and even more importantly, they use user activity to produce better search results. While a Barnesandnoble.com search is likely to lead with the company’s own products, or sponsored results, Amazon always leads with “most popular”, a real-time computation based not only on sales but other factors that Amazon insiders call the “flow” around products. With an order of magnitude more user participation, it’s no surprise that Amazon’s sales also outpace competitors.

Now, innovative companies that pick up on this insight and perhaps extend it even further, are making their mark on the web:

* Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia based on the unlikely notion that an entry can be added by any web user, and edited by any other, is a radical experiment in trust, applying Eric Raymond’s dictum (originally coined in the context of open source software) that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” to content creation. Wikipedia is already in the top 100 websites, and many think it will be in the top ten before long. This is a profound change in the dynamics of content creation!
* Sites like del.icio.us and Flickr, two companies that have received a great deal of attention of late, have pioneered a concept that some people call “folksonomy” (in contrast to taxonomy), a style of collaborative categorization of sites using freely chosen keywords, often referred to as tags. Tagging allows for the kind of multiple, overlapping associations that the brain itself uses, rather than rigid categories. In the canonical example, a Flickr photo of a puppy might be tagged both “puppy” and “cute”–allowing for retrieval along natural axes generated user activity.
* Collaborative spam filtering products like Cloudmark aggregate the individual decisions of email users about what is and is not spam, outperforming systems that rely on analysis of the messages themselves.
* It is a truism that the greatest internet success stories don’t advertise their products. Their adoption is driven by “viral marketing”–that is, recommendations propagating directly from one user to another. You can almost make the case that if a site or product relies on advertising to get the word out, it isn’t Web 2.0.
* Even much of the infrastructure of the web–including the Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl, PHP, or Python code involved in most web servers–relies on the peer-production methods of open source, in themselves an instance of collective, net-enabled intelligence. There are more than 100,000 open source software projects listed on SourceForge.net. Anyone can add a project, anyone can download and use the code, and new projects migrate from the edges to the center as a result of users putting them to work, an organic software adoption process relying almost entirely on viral marketing.

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