Archive for the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ category

Crowdsourcing a Restaurant

28, July, 2008

Fascinating story in the Washington Post yesterday [I still get the Sunday “hard copy” of the newspaper] about a Washington, D.C. group that is crowdsourcing a new restaurant.

Web 2.know-it-alls may sniff at calling this project “crowdsourcing” at all. But it’s an effort to harvest the best ideas of a group of enthusiasts and build a restaurant based on all that group input. The article claims it’s the first use of the crowdsourcing technique to build a restaurant. [I did a Google search and by that undependable measure the claim appears to be true.]

Linda Welch, 49, a serial entrepreneur, had gathered 386 Elements community members who have, the article reports, “helped develop the concept (a sustainable vegetarian/raw foods restaurant), the look (a comfortable gathering space with an open kitchen), the logo (a bouquet of colorful leaves) and even the name [Elements].”

“Most businesses are started because you have a great idea, and you take it out to the public to see if they like it,” Welch is quoted in the Post story. “This is the opposite. We’re finding out what people want and doing it.”

As for the genesis: The article continues,

“The Elements project began in February 2007 when Welch [49], who owns area several businesses in the District, purchased the business and liquor licenses of nearby Sparky’s, a coffee shop that had closed. Welch has helped launch 22 startups but has no restaurant experience. She didn’t know exactly what she planned to do with the licenses, other than open a small cafe. Around that time, Neil Takemoto, 40, another local entrepreneur who had worked with Welch, stopped by to chat. When Welch told him about her plans, Takemoto suggested crowdsourcing the restaurant.

“‘I said, ‘Great!’ ” Welch remembers. ” ‘What the hell is that?’ ‘”

Takemoto runs a business, CoolTown Studios, that helps companies use crowdsourcing and other social media techniques to support community development.

Here’s a schematic illustrating the collective developement process from the site his company created to support Elements:

The Elements project is a fascinating attempt at a proof-of-concept using “wisdom of the crowds” to build a real-life, carbon-based business from the ground up.

It’ll also be interesting to see what happens now that the effort has been publicized beyond the core group of enthusiasts and supporters. Since the article has appeared, about 30 people have signed up.

What happens to the wisdom ofthe crowds–and the value of their advice–as the crowd expands? Crowdsourcing theory says things will get better, as greater collective intelligence is tapped.

We’ll see. I, for one, am looking forward to the opening, sometime next year. Process is good. Product is vital for a restaurant.

Which is to say: I sure hope the food’s good.


iMedix: Social Search that Creeps Me Out

12, May, 2008

Oh, geez. Deb21 wants to chat again.

Here I am, trying to look up some information about tinnitus–a k a ringing in the ears, a condition which has recently afflicted a member of my family–and Deb21 [I’ve changed her handle to protect the innocent ] wants to chat. A little photo box pops up on my screen, with the icky solicitation “I’m online! Chat with me now!” There’s even an audible little ping whenever she implores me to spend some time with her.

iMedix social search

Welcome to iMedix, a “social search” site in the personal health space.

In concept, social search is powerful: Combine the algorithmically valid but brain-dead health search results of a typical search engine with the “wisdom of the crowds”–the aggregated opinions of real humans who can validate the information they found worthwhile when dealing with the same issue. Add to that the ability to connect with those people, and (goes the theory) you’ve got something good.

Like any 2.0 community, iMedix faces the challenge of creating critical mass: A community with nobody home is in a death spiral from Day One. But building critical mass from scratch is no small task in mid-2008: Early adopters are oversubscribed to social networks and the mainstream hasn’t figured out what all the fuss is about. Every business based on network power needs people. A lot of them. Fast.

Which brings us back to Deb21. iMedix seems to be trying a bit too hard to get people to join the party, dispatching its youthful crowd to flag folks into the front door.

First it was Ann, a comely 29-year-old community manager interested in fitness and lifestyle. I acquiesced to her friend request but haven’t heard from her since.

I accepted friendship with a fellow calling himself neurosurgeon_55, figuring it’s never a bad idea to know a brain surgeon. But then I discovered he’s a 17-year-old guy in India, whose personal statement reads, in part:

Then we will ve a lots of chat (humourous)but valuable beniffitng both of us in the long run so what r u thinking of? Hmmmmmmmm..lets go ahead and chat.Yo man!!

An unsettling number of people who have set up profiles in iMedix are attractive and young and look, at least to these middle-aged eyes, like the happy-go-lucky group with cool haircuts and great teeth you see in ads for premium liquors.

Here is the problem: People with health problems have, well. . .health problems. They want to see that people like them, people who have something valuable to share, are in a community.

You will certainly find these people at iMedix: There’s a 53-year-old woman whose college age daughter has bipolar and is an abusive relationship. Good lord, the woman needs help. Call me too fast to judgment, but I don’t think neurosurgeon_55 is the guy to offer her support and guidance.

To be fair: iMedix is in beta. It appears they’ve seeded the site with the folks they have around–their young staff and (it appears) their social network contacts.

Building a 2.0 health community is hard. Not many people have gotten it right, and the very concept is fraught with danger. But social networks are based on the company they keep. And no matter who that company is, in the health space I’m not sure they should jump onto your screen saying “I’m online! Chat with me now!”

As for the search part of the social search: The information on tinnitus was really pretty good, better than what Brother Google served up on page one. Link number one was a direct hit.

Along the way I found the profile of someone named Niroo. She is 24 and says she has hearing loss and is interested in tinnitus. She lives in Iran. I sent her an e-mail. Haven’t heard from her yet. [#]

Punchline, added 5/19/2008

Seven days after writing the entry above, I received the following message in my iMedix mailbox.

Dearest One,
My name is Miss Ashandy,i am a single girl never marrie i saw your profile today at ( and became intrested in you,i will also like to know you the more,and i want you to send an email to my email address so i can give you my picture
for (i believe we can move from here.
I am waiting for your mail to my email address above.Miss Ashandy (Remeber the distance or colour does not matter but love matters alot in life
Yours Lover
Miss Ashandy Rolland

The 2.D’oh! Weekly Roundup

25, April, 2008

Linkers, blinkers and stinkers from the last week:

2.0, Ink

Blogger Nic Haralambous wants to crowdsource his tattoo. Confessing he is “a bit of a black hole” regarding the design of something so permanent, “…what I am asking for is a little help. I want to crowdsource some ideas for the design of my tattoo.” It’s for his left arm, between elbow and shoulder.

Specs: “The size of the entire thing cannot exceed the dimensions of an A4 piece of paper. Below is some of the design that I have (a cropped version of what I have, there is alot of stuff missing).

Legal disclaimer and copyright: “I can’t and wont promise to use stuff that is sent in to me as is, but I can be sure that I will use the ideas and credit the designers on this blog when the final design is placed on to me arm.”

Stop Me Before I Aggregate Again

Bill Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun, talking with Mediashift blogger Mark Glaser, about the curious profusion of sites designed to aggregate content and the decline of sites that produce it:

You see these people like Tina Brown having her own site, and Michael Wolff has this site. You have these main journalists/columnists migrating online, but what are they doing? News aggregators. That’s what blogs are. . . .But do we want people to come on and say they are going to point us to more stories? That’s what Matt Drudge already does or You’re not going to deliver me anything better than what they’re doing. I want to see you break stories and not just tell me what’s on the Washington Post. What you’re going to need soon is a news aggregator of the news aggregator sites.

Yes, But Who Will Do the Fact-Checking?

“Germany’s Bertelsmann will publish a series of annual yearbooks whose content is derived from the hundreds of thousands of user-created entries on Wikipedia. The parent company of book publisher Random House plans to publish the first “One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia” in September.

“Copies of the 992-page book, available only in German, will retail for $31.80.”

via Yahoo News

Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug

24, April, 2008

There are many good reasons to deplore Wikipedia, not the least of which is its authors’ cultish smuggery about the righteousness of their cause and the rightness of their content.

Of course there is also its internecine complexity of processes. The documentation tracing the petty bitchery about an entry is often longer than the entry that is produced. The international collectivist negotiation over matters of “fact” is beginning to remind me of the United Nations, but without the fancy New York headquarters.

A recent post by e-health blogger John Grohol left me steaming anew about the nature of the entire enterprise.

The piece details a series of exchanges between a Wikipedia editor and Gilles Frydman, head of the non-profit cancer support community ACOR. The issue was the collective’s refusal to permit links to health-related support groups.

The post includes only one side of the story, and that filtered through the articulate vitriol of Grohol. So I can’t vouch for the details of the exchange. But it is accurate that Wikipedia does not permit links to support groups. [See relevant policy excerpt at end of entry.] On reflection, this astonishes me:

1. Wikipedia is designed to harness the collective intelligence of many individuals, an example of the the classic web 2.0 “wisdom of the crowds.”

2. Online support forums are designed to harness the collective intelligence of many individuals, the classic web 2.0 “wisdom of the crowds.”

Wikipedia leverages the wisdom of the crowds one way. Online support forums do so another way. But Wikipedia won’t assign value to the other–in fact as a matter of policy it pointedly excludes it. Which is to say: The power of the many is a powerful force to disseminate knowledge–except when it’s not.

The hypocrisy is remarkable. To cite just one sad example: The Wikipedia entry on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig/Stephen Hawking disease) is workmanlike. It includes references to mainstream groups like the ALS Foundation. It even includes, god help us, a link to that font of scientific dispassion, the Ride for Life.

But it is utterly silent on the powerful ALS community of PatientsLikeMe, an unusually ambitious patient (and provider) experience- and data-sharing site. To say it serves folks who need to know about ALS far better than Wikipedia–and that it offers a greater amount of authoritative current knowledge–is to understate.

Yet Wikipedia excludes it because it is an online support group, not because it is unworthy. Wikipedia has decided–for expedience? for ideological reasons? for self-interest?–to exclude information not on the merits of an individual source but due to its information class.

It’s a sort of info-bigotry, an attempt to exclude a minority deemed less worthy based entirely on class, not merits. And Wikipedia is itself part of a larger class, web 2.0, which itself suffers similar discrimination!

If we are to exclude one style of responsibly gathering collective wisdom, should we exclude them all? Or–here’s an idea–maybe we should judge individual sources on their merits.

The trouble is, so many people around the world link to Wikipedia, it rides at the top of nearly every topic search results page. This only increases its use and ubiquity, if not hegemony. Its decisions to include and exclude data are magnified across the information universe.

I’m wondering if it’s time for concerned web citizens to stop linking to Wikipedia. If this were to catch on, it would have the effect of diminishing its ubiquity, allowing it to recede to its proper role: a useful but limited, and often deeply flawed, source of information. Just like an online support group, only bigger, and with a chip on its shoulder.

I know, of course, that this is trying to sweep back the sea with a broom. To draw on that U.N. metaphor, maybe it’s time for a different kind of collective action: Wikipedia out of the web. The web out of Wikipedia.

See a continuing conversation about the role of social media in health at this recent post at The Health Care Blog.


[Wikipedia linking policy on support groups. Note the sniff of condescension implicit in the second paragraph. And note how the Awareness and Fundraising Events sections in its medical articles clearly violate this policy!:]

“Wikipedia’s external links policy and the specific guidelines for medicine-related articles do not permit the inclusion of external links to non-encyclopedic material, particularly including: patient support groups, personal experience/survivor stories, internet chat boards, e-mail discussion groups, recruiters for clinical trials, healthcare providers, fundraisers, or similar pages.

“Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not an advertising opportunity or a support group for patients or their families. Please do not re-insert links that do not conform to the standard rules.” Gets Social [Media]

21, April, 2008

Magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes was a famous socialite known for throwing fantabulous parties for his rich pals. The online partner of the magazine bearing his name is getting pretty social too. It’s no boozefest on a yacht, but it invites its readers to a lively get-together.

[End of party metaphor here, just in time.]

Most publications now accept that their web sites shouldn’t just present published content with multimedia accessories. They’re slowly giving up on building “walled gardens” that try to prevent visitors from escaping. What’s evolving is widespread use of social media that engage readers to respond to, evaluate and create content. It’s tricky. It’s scary. But it’s essential.’s social media features:

Reader recommendations: The site gives readers a nearly equal say in surfacing the good stuff: A “Top Rated” module appears above the fold, just below Top News. Too many sites bury this feature.

Community: Its “Stock Pickers Community,” puts a different civilian investor, with picks and a detailed performance record, on the main stage every day. Community members can choose to “follow” people (like Twitter or Facebook, but with a purpose). In aggregate, the number of followers constitute a group endorsement. It’s easy to see how this can encourage to Digg-like mischief [“follow me and I’ll follow you!”]. But hey, welcome to 2.0, where the wisdom of the crowds battles the self-interest of the cabal constantly.

Bloggers: Okay, the bloggers are gathering communities of readers, but someone has to tell these folks to write shorter. Their entries are as long as front-of-the-book magazine articles or in-print opinion columns. That’s not going to work on the web. Five hundred words, two links and out, gang. [I exclude myself from this edict, of course.]

Forbes\' OrgChart Wiki

A wiki: The OrgChart wiki is one of the coolest and most wonderfully dangerous features I’ve seen on a suit-and-tie site like Type a company name and out pops a visual representation of who falls where on the food chain, with little popup notes. Have information to add? Corrections to make? Have at it. It’s like Wikipedia for pod-dwellers and corporate climbers with bad attitudes. Demote your enemies! Appoint your pals to the board! In Web 2.0, you’re in control.

It’s encouraging to see continue to evolve, even after its big renovation last year. That’s the way the web works: Iterate, don’t redesign.

And invite your guests to the party. They’ll misbehave, but that’s part of the fun.

ENN: The Most Trusted Name in Election News?

4, February, 2008

Publish2, a social network for journalists, has launched the Election News Network, an effort to leverage (I hate it when I use that word) the collective wisdom of journalists to cover the campaign activity between now and November.

The short version: Publish2 is a social bookmarking tool (think for journalists, newsrooms, bloggers, and others who cover the news, whether paid or not). Participants will bookmark what they think is the best news coverage of the election news using a special one-click browser-based tool.

Those bookmarks will be aggregated into an RSS feed which can be published on any news site, blog, etc. The first-of-its-kind feed will reflect a network of journalists’ views of the best election coverage (think Digg for well-informed, literate people).

As Scott Karp, proprietor of Publish2, explains in the Publish2 blog::

There’s a huge opportunity to help voters find the best election coverage in the sea of election content. Yeah, you can do it by yourself — but on the web, the larger the network, the more influential the linking — time to break down those traditional media silos.

As is so often the case, journalists have written a lot about social networks but haven’t done much about them. While Publish2 is still in private beta, Super Tuesday will be the first live proof-of-concept effort to gather and publish the collective brainpower of journalists.

Several news organizations have signed up–, the New England News Forum, among others. Meantime, journalists–liberally but thoughtfully defined–can sign up to contribute their bookmarks to the feed for tomorrow’s action, and for the rest of the campaign season.

Interest revealed: Scott and I had lunch at Austin Grill some time ago. He paid. We’ve also been known to exchange bleary IMs after midnight.

Digging Itself (Maybe) Out of A Hole

25, January, 2008

Digg, the original “wisdom”-of-the-crowds web content filter, has caved.

It’s abandoning–“tweaking” would be the kindest description–its earlier policy of allowing users alone to elevate or demote web content to visibility. By making changes to its algorithm,  it will essentially diminish the impact of the votes (aka “Diggs”) of a hardcore group of power users who have  disproportionate influence over what content sees the light of day.

Founder Kevin Rose has a  sly, even disingenuous, blog entry explaining the change.

Scott Karp, author of the Publishing 2.0 blog, offers an insightful explanation of what’s really going on–and what it means to the whole wisdom-of-the-crowds concept.

User-generated litigation

24, December, 2007

The inherent fairness of wisdom-of-the-crowds ratings matters very little when applied to things like recipes, R&B songs, videos, restaurants or blog entries (Digg this entry, folks, please!).

When public opinions are gathered about lawyers, however, things get a little stickier.

Witness Browne v. Avvo, Inc.

Avvo is a web 2.0 site that invites users to rank lawyers. Browne is John Henry Browne, a Seattle attorney who was ranked by Avvo. I’m guessing you know where this story is headed.

Bottom line: Browne’s class-action suit against Avvo’s CEO and 25 “John Does” was thrown out. Frankly I don’t want to get into much detail here, because I don’t need Browne or any individual so situated to sue my puny butt. But read David Ardia’s summary of the Browne v. Avvo on the website of the Citizen Media Law Project for all the details.

I will, however, share this one ripe bit of commentary from U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik, who granted the defendants’ dismissal of the suit:

[P]laintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number [[the rating published by Avvo–cs]] assigned to them because (a) it could harm their reputation, (b) it could cost them customers/fees, or (c) it could mislead the lawyer-hiring public into retaining poor lawyers or bypassing better lawyers. To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action.

If there’s been a more astute observation about the practice of aggregating public opinion to provide consumer guidance, I’ve yet to read it. It’s a dumb practice. And it’s pointless to fight it.

[Conflict-of-interest note: CMLP’s David Ardia is a former attorney for my ex-employer, the Washington Post. On several occasions he managed to keep stories I edited on the proper side of the law.]

I Can’t Digg It

8, November, 2007

Today comes speculation from the occasionally correct “RumorMonger” feature of the ValleyWag blog that the always-for-sale Digg is about to actually be sold, perhaps for somewhere between $300 million to $400 million. (See Michael Arrington’s head-shaking history of Digg-for-sale rumors.)

The RumorMonger wonders aloud whether the buyer will be, maybe, The Washington Post or the New York Times. Whatever.

To me this is just more evidence that the Bubble of Insanity continues its fearsome expansion, with investors who lack confidence in their ability to identify the Next Big Thing instead settle for vulgar overspending on the Last Big Thing.

Sure, whoever buys Digg gets a huge audience. But who are those people?

Anyone who spends much time on Digg (which I am not recommending) knows the web popularity service does not surface the most worthy or interesting material. Just about the only way to elevate even a very good story to the front page of Digg is to ask other Diggers and other friends to Digg it. This is a peculiar way to spend one’s time–a coercive, small, even mean act of rebellion against the very wisdom-of-the-crowds spirit on which Digg was founded.

Anyone who doubts me should consider: As I write this, the most Digg’d item that comes up via a Digg search using the term “Digg” produces the following top result: “The best video of Ron Paul: everyone please digg!!!!! [15,339 Diggs]

Among the Top 10 Diggees at the moment of this posting, 4 fall under the category of political paranoia (the draft is returning, something about a massive dragnet of all citizens), 2 are odd stories about sex, 1 is a techie inside joke about blocking popups. Two are genuinely interesting: a hauntingly beautiful time-elapsed graphic image of one day’s air traffic, and a chart that appears to show how the U.S. dollar has been sliding during the Bush years. The guy who submitted that one had Digg’d nine other stories within a two-minute period six hours ago.

Now I have never met a Digger–by which I mean one of the people who actually spends his or her (but more often his) time asking others to Digg stories, and Digging theirs in return. But I have a hard time imagining what goes through his head, why he chooses to spend time this way, what he does in his, how you say, “free” time.

I urge anybody who is seriously considering buying Digg for an amount that could say, fund the Iraq War for several weeks to back away from the balance sheets and metric reports and spend some time at the elbow of a prolific Digger.

Is that the audience you want to buy?

Needed, Right Now, Today: Crowdsourced Fact-checking

7, August, 2007

After the bizarre press conference by Robert Murray, CEO of the company that owns half of the Utah mine where six miners are trapped, it became instantly clear to me how the tools of Web 2.0 could be harnessed for some sort of public good.

Murray charged an Associated Press reporter by name with inaccurate reporting of the mine disaster, inviting other reporters to ignore his coverage and turn exclusively to him, Murray, for “the truth.”

Rule of journalism No. 47: When the CEO of a company in a difficult situation says to listen only to him for “the truth,” run immediately to other sources to determine said truth.

I won’t get into the parsing of the facts here. My point is how much the world needs independent, 2.0-style collaboration to fact-check media controversies.

Murray’s charges create an ideal opportunity. Imagine a group of people, independent of the media and independent of commercial interests, willing to dig down and find out the facts about Murray’s charges (and the facts about the mine disaster itself). Did AP get it right, or were they indeed depending on the comments of union “lackeys” who “know nothing” about the situation, as Murray charged? [The entire press conference is priceless. I couldn’t find a link to the whole thing, which is destined to become a classic. Anybody out there have a link to the whole thing?] 

AP should, and will, defend itself. (As will Fox News, which also got spanked by Murray as an aside.) Neither had responded as of this writing. [Odd observation: Fox’s home page this afternoon included an item titled “Report: GI Journo Made Up Stories.”]

But those news organs cannot produce credible reports on their own actions. As I’ve written previously, the claims that MSM can cover itself are proof MSM is blind to its own limitations. Frankly, any MSM effort to determine whether Murray is right about AP’s reporting will be suspect.

For some background on crowdsourcing, a term coined in Wired magazine, see this Wikipedia entry on the topic. But since Wikipedia is itself a grand, some say deeply flawed, exercise in crowdsourcing, it may not be any more clear-eyed on this topic than AP is on its own mining coverage.  

What’s needed is a team of dispassionate footsoldiers who band together, with disinterested sponsorship and without the corporate and professional intellectual habits of MSM, to lay out the facts about who’s right and who’s wrong in a public dispute about the facts like this. This project would need to be established and, on a moment’s notice, be ready to jump into action. A sort of Code Blue truth squad. A sleeper cell of citizen fact-finders.

The tools exist. The need is here. The opportunity struck today.

It will be interesting to see if the culture of 2.0 is developed enough to produce a meaningful response.