Solving Problems Collectively
The widespread proliferation of online participatory systems such as wikis and blog networks helped popularize the idea of collective intelligence. Value that emerges from these systems shows that a whole system can appear more intelligent than any individual contribution. As these online participatory systems continue to broaden in application and increase in sophistication, they take on a more targeted and significant role as tools to accomplish focused, productive work. More specifically, online environments will be constructed to collectively solve complex and multifaceted problems. Imagine the possibility of adjusting aspects of an existing, productive online community in order to stimulate the ideal resolution of specific problems, much like a marketplace might be arranged over time to produce the most efficient and valuable transactions.
Existing participatory systems are designed to separately invite online user contributions in one capacity, and to aggregate collective value in another, but few environments attempt to holistically address the production of useful outcomes by moving participation towards meaningful and intelligent results. This determined focus on how best to design participatory environments to solve problems is particularly relevant given the world’s abundance of complex and urgent problems to be addressed. Methods for solving them collectively online have only begun to be explored.
Required Focus on the Individual
The recent surge in individual contribution on the Internet - as witnessed by the growth of video and photo sharing and the ubiquity of blogging - has created an odd duality. On one hand, this mass participation holds great promise for building collectively intelligent environments. On the other hand, it is only through the individual motivations of the participants that contributions originate. It is solely the whim of the individual that drives the potential for collective intelligence online. This issue is difficult to embrace when the majority of collective intelligence discourse focuses on the sweeping collaborative potential and not the nuances of individual behavior.
In 1911, William Morton Wheeler observed the collective behavior of an ant colony and labeled it as a “superorganism”. Given the impact of this insight, it is good that he did not instead focus on the importance of why one ant follows another ant’s trail, but this is exactly the type of concentration that the field needs today. Observing overall group behavior and studying the often surprising outcomes of collective systems builds excitement but yields little in the way of guidance when trying to construct these systems. The understanding of individual’s behavior in a collective system helps determine the best design and adaptation of online systems to stimulate intelligent and specific outcomes. Looking at individual motivations to participate becomes critical in understanding how adjustments in the rules, interfaces, and mechanisms of online systems can be used to yield more intelligent outcomes.
Designing Systems That Work
Decentralized peer production environments hold more promise in directing participatory systems towards collectively intelligent outcomes than the traditional approach of using centralized authority to drive individual behavior. The success of open source software development and wikis suggests that production environments based on autonomous individual action have the most potential for large-scale, enduring participation. These systems provide individual freedom and choice for interacting with resources and projects without any single authority dictating individual behavior or focus. It is precisely the individual's response to the freedom inherent in a decentralized system that triggers the desire to participate.
Words like "harness" or "leverage" used to describe value produced through individual participation signals a misguided perspective of centralized authority controlling participants. Seeing individuals as a ready resource to be wheedled and mined for value is, at best, a misunderstanding of how distributed production operates, and at worst, a setup to failure. Individually-motivated activity is the cornerstone of successful participatory environments, and presuming participation while undervaluing the individual causes contributions to evaporate. Cajoling effective production, dictating behavior, and exploiting contributions is inherently counter-productive to participatory environments. Empowering the individual creates beneficial outcomes and cultivates an environment where these contributions are most valuable.
Since the best participatory environments exist to serve individuals and address their interests first and foremost, the heavy-handed, centralized actions or exploitation of participants corrupts an online collective environment irreparably. Ideally, participants develop a feeling of ownership over the environment, and providing such an atmosphere is indispensable to ensure the environment’s continuance.
Designing participatory systems is difficult. The most typical challenge is in obtaining a volume of effective participation. New environments struggle to reach critical mass, while existing environments constantly work to provide the right environmental characteristics to attract valuable contributions and distill value back to participants. These difficulties are becoming more common, as an onslaught of online applications now competes for the attention of contributors, and single participants are stretched thin across multiple environments. The question becomes where to focus when designing decentralized systems in order to stimulate effective participation.
Motivating Effective Participation
Enticing the individual to participate can be challenging, and assuming any one driving force is counterproductive. Investigations by Steven Weber in The Success of Open Source and Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks both highlight that no single motivation can explain voluntary peer production for all participants. Additionally, several intertwined motivating factors are likely within a single individual, creating an unpredictable and complex understanding of contributors.
Due to the highly social nature of online participation, traditional behavioral economics do not apply. It is unlikely that extrinsic motivators, such as financial incentives, provide the panacea to driving effective participation. In fact, financial rewards can negatively influence intrinsic motivations, thus resulting in an overall decrease in effort and participation. Existing participatory systems often make the mistake of assuming contributors are either self-serving or, alternatively, relying on contributors to act only towards addressing a larger, socially beneficial outcome. Contributors, however, are neither purely selfish, nor solely altruistic. Participant drive includes a complex mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that vary by individual.
Participatory systems should focus fundamentally on freedom and autonomy for individuals while presenting irresistible situations for self-directed activity. Furthermore, whether creating an environment that constructs solutions for world peace or one that asks users to upload a photo, this focus on individuals is indispensable. With this in mind, creators of participatory systems should:
- Stimulate unbounded, creative opportunism by providing a commons, or shared set of freely-available resources, which individuals use without concern for waste or misuse
- Cultivate hope and possibility by helping individuals see potential outcomes and avenues to take advantage of potential opportunities
- Offer complete control, ownership, and attribution over what can be contributed, publically viewed, and used by others
- Encourage playful experimentation by providing a safe environment that allows individuals to correct mistakes and reduces their social and financial risks
- Support individual acknowledgement by providing opportunities for contributions to be seen and recognized by a worldwide audience
- Offer varying levels of engagement so participation can grow and change over time
- Stimulate productivity through tools that allow a breadth of novel and creative application
Novel Approaches to Complex Problems
The potential for collectively intelligent systems in the pervasive and interconnected environment of the Internet is unprecedented and essential. The large, complex problems of the world must be addressed through novel approaches that ensure progress towards resolutions.
These challenges will require environments designed to stimulate widespread individual participation and emergent, mutually beneficial outcomes for all.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the behaviors of individual contributors when thinking collectively, understanding individual behavior and motivation holds promise for designing participatory systems that yield significant results.
To ensure success, collective systems must embrace voluntary, independent participation in a decentralized environment while motivating individuals by supporting the freedom and autonomy of self-directed production.