TAG: Wisdom of Crowds

Weak Ties and Diversity in Social Networks

Anne Truitt Zelenka has a nice post: Weak Ties for Social Problem Solving in Enterprise 2.0, touching on a subject being discussed more and more these days: weak ties. She suggests that one of the next challenges for social software is distributed problem solving: how to leverage your social network when you have a tough problem to solve.

One of pieces Anne references is Andrew McAfee’s The Ties that Find, a nice overview of the idea of weak ties, which originated with the fascinating work of Mark Granovetter, who wrote the original work The Strength of Weak Ties(PDF) in 1973. Weak ties are relationships we have with people outside our own social networks. We don’t utilize them often, but we utilize them in certain situations to help us with things our social networks can’t. Most importantly, weak ties gives us a perspective outside of the normal groups of which we are a part, whose perspectives tend to become homogenized over time as we learn and become familiar with the people we spend the most time with.

What struck me about Anne and Andrew’s pieces was the implicit idea of the value of diversity. Neither mentioned this explicitly, but for those familiar with James Surowiecki’s work The Wisdom of Crowds, diversity is crucial to wisdom, and thus problem solving. Weak ties helps explain how we continually introduce diversity within our social groups, by periodically leveraging those relationships with people outside our close-knit social networks.

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The Danger of Aggregate Displays in Social Software

Where is the ethical line drawn when designing interfaces that show popularity?

One of the most important results of people interacting socially online is that we can measure the effect of social influence. A ground-breaking study by Columbia professor Duncan Watts showed how this could be done. (I wrote it up in How Aggregate Displays Change User Behavior) This is one of the most important studies I’ve seen…it clearly shows a relationship between people’s actions and the aggregate information that’s shown to them in the interface.

iTunes Top Songs

For those not familiar with Watts’ study, it showed that when faced with an interface showing what other people did we are definitely influenced by that behavior. If we are shown a list of the most downloaded songs, as in the study, we cannot help but give more weight to those songs downloaded more. We’ll be more likely to download those songs ourselves. This echoes countless studies from social psychology that show how we are affected by our environment.

Dangerous Territory

But one dangerous effect of aggregate displays might not be apparent at first. After we realize that our displays are affecting people, the next question becomes: which aggregate displays do we show and when? This is a question a lot of design teams are grappling with as they build out their social software.

But taking it even further we get into ethical territory. This was made plain to me by a question that someone asked me the other day after we were discussing Watts’ study. They asked: “If people respond to aggregate displays, and change their behavior accordingly as they’ve done in Watts’ study, aren’t those people also in a position to be manipulated?”

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On Increasingly Sophisticated Social Interfaces

In many circles you hear the call of software designers saying “Less is more”. In theory this is a good rallying call, getting designers to really think about each and every feature they add. But in practice it isn’t necessarily true that taking features out of a product, or not adding features to a product, makes it any better. Sometimes, more is more.

This is especially true in social interfaces that model complex social interactions. In some cases there is just no way around it: human relationships are complex and so whatever view we offer into them must have some complexity as well. That doesn’t mean they should be hard-to-use, it just means that they communicate sophisticated information.

Take the reviews on Amazon.com. For years Amazon’s interface showed the average review, so viewers could tell the general mood surrounding a book. If it was a 5 star or a 1 star book, then that would be instantly recognizable.

But over time it became clear that the rating system had a fault: if the average rating was somewhere in the middle, say 3.5 stars, it was unclear whether it was just a dull book that most people rated as mediocre or if it was a polarizing book that half the people rated 5 and half the people rated 1. A political book, for example, usually polarizes.

So the review interface could be made more sophisticated, showing more information about how the reviews for a particular book were distributed. Amazon came up with a nice interface for this…

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Live by the Digg, Die by the Digg

On Wednesday, May 2, users of the site Digg.com, a social news site, did something remarkable in the history of the Social Web. What they did was seize editorial control of the site: what content appeared on the home page of Digg, for the first time, was truly decided by its users.

If you aren’t familiar with the details, here is a quick recap. ReadWriteWeb also had a nice timeline of events.

There are two ways you can look at this incident whereby Diggers overwhelmed the site by repeatedly (up to two per second) digging stories containing an HD-DVD crack code.

One is as described by Mike Arrington of Techcrunch: Digg Surrenders to Mob. Simply using the word “Mob” makes for great press. We gravitate to mobs because we know they’re messing with the Man. They’re anti-authority, they’re doing what they’re not supposed to, they’re pissed and fighting for their rights. We think of the French or Russian or American Revolution, and we like it.

But maybe, just maybe, mobs aren’t that bad. Terry Heaton had an insightful observation: “What I find most fascinating here is the automatic assumption that chaos is evil. This is a purely modernist perspective, but life itself proves it to be false.” He argues that the so-called Mob was more like the site at its finest…that a Mob is nothing more than democracy at high speed. I tend to agree with this.

The other way to look at the situation is as I described it: Digg Surrenders to Community. The difference is in those two words: Mob and Community. Now, I wasn’t being as calculated as Mike was being, I’m sure, but when realizing the stark contrast afterward it occurred to me that you either acknowledge the voice of the people on Digg as a group, or you do not. You either view them as a passionate Community, or you view them as a anarchic Mob.

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Web as Platform

Tim O’Reilly is returning to the definition he started with: Web 2.0 is the Web as Platform. This is the definition that got me interested in Web 2.0 in the first place. It makes sense, easily contrasts with “desktop as platform”, and is accurate: we are seeing a tremendous platform move to the Web. Unfortunately, […]

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Yes Virginia, there is SPAM on Digg

When social design works, you get SPAM. When it works well, the community helps get rid of it. Cnet’s Elinor Mills, in a piece describing Digg rigging on a wide scale, writes: “dubious Internet marketers are planting stories, paying people to promote items, and otherwise trying to manipulate rankings on Digg and other so-called social-media […]

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Surowiecki’s In Praise of Third Place

Lots of folks have been linking to this, and it’s really good so I thought I would, too. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, has written a great piece: In Praise of Third Place, which details Nintendo’s innovation while being in third place in the gaming industry…a position they fell to after their […]

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Why Scale Matters in Tagging Systems

Why and how scale in social tagging systems can leverage the Wisdom of Crowds (much like Google does with links) to make the incorrect tags less influential than certain Aristotelians would have us believe. Ok, so I got into hot water for my Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture post… But I’m completely […]

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Digg’s Design Dilemma

This past week’s Digg controversy is one in a growing number of incidents that suggest that a small group of users are having an undue influence on the promotion of stories. In response, Digg is changing the way that it handles votes by adding complexity to its ranking algorithm. I think that’s the wrong approach, so here’s another idea: change the actual design of the site…that’s the real problem.

The most recent controversy happened on September 5th, when someone named jesusphreak posted Digg the Rigged?, an in-depth article exposing some of the curious details of recently-popular stories on digg. Many of the stories, jp pointed out, were dugg by members of the Digg Top 30, or the 30 most popular digg members (popular being measured by number of stories submitted that were promoted to the frontpage). The Top 30 includes Digg founder Kevin Rose.

This was not the first time that someone has pointed out this phenomenon. On April 18 of this year Macgyver at ForeverGeek posted Digg Army, which included screenshots of who dugg two recent articles on the site. Each article had the exact same 16 people digging it in the exact same order. Of the first 19, 18 were the same. Included in that list of people was, again, Kevin Rose. ( for an in-depth history see Tony Hung’s excellent: A Brief History of the Digg Controversy)

These incidents, taken together, are more than coincidence…

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The Non-collision of Relationship and Independent George

Why the distinction between our online and offline lives is less meaningful every day.

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