Do We Have Wisdom in Collaboration?

I’m reading a book called The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I’m usually somewhat dismissive of any notion of intelligence in collective bodies with no explicit common goals. This book makes some compelling arguments about greater intelligence created from a sum smaller than its parts. Among the points made in the book:

  • Groups arrive at better-than-average solutions more often than all but the very smartest individuals
  • Independent actions by group members—even while serving their own self interests—most often leads to the most positive outcome available in a situation
  • Diversity, independence, decentralization and aggregation empower the best group decisions and differentiate mob mentality from wisely chosen, yet individually unintentional, group decisions

I thought about this idea the other night as I was using a popular geek developer and technology site, Stack Overflow, trying to find a solution to a technical issue I had. And you know what? The wisdom of internet crowds really does make our common knowledge greater than the sum of its parts.

Stack Overflow’s technology—really well implemented and easy to use—mirrors the essential human condition of judging conversations and interactions with other humans. The electronic version of an eye roll and a blow off is available through technology to judge the quality of answers to questions submitted on the Stack Overflow site. On the other hand, it’s easy to give a thumbs up and pat on the back to elevate positive contributions relevant to a particular question.

Why is this important? How does it relate to wisdom in crowds? Well, we’ve basically got ourselves a virtual crowd on the internet and sometimes it’s difficult to tell who knows what she’s talking about and who doesn’t. Collaborative rating tools like those that Stack Overflow employs let the “Collective We” call bullshit on the posers while propping up the ones who really know. Collaboration really does increase the greater knowledge of the group and this takes on great importance as we expand more and more into a virtual world.

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