essay
The following is my chapter in its entirety from my published book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.

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.

How might media organizations better engage their audiences online?

Over the past year, I teamed up with several public broadcasters to try and answer this question. We collected lessons while rolling out online participation software at NPR’s Car Talk, KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, PRI’s The World and a dozen others. We are learning that the future of media engagement goes beyond invitations for listener comments. The leading examples involve much higher expectations from the "audience"; specifically, their partnership in delivering on more collaborative projects.

Can the motivations that drive individual behavior towards online collaborative production be explained entirely by enlightened self-interest? More generally, in this new culture around collaboration and online participation, what motivates people to share? This was (essentially) the question posed by a research associate of Yochai Benkler at Clay Shirky's talk at Harvard last week. Enlightened self-interest can be defined as individual motivations that are neither purely selfish nor altruistic, but are ultimately based in the knowledge that helping the group might ultimately help oneself. This is exemplified in the shopkeeper who is only generous to customers so that they might ultimately profit in the long run through future business. Can this alone explain why people cooperate online?


In a neighborhood near my home, there is a school playground with an enormous three story chain link fence along one side – presumably as a barrier for errant basketballs. The fence is constructed inches away from an adjacent home. I thought to myself "that would suck - I would probably rather have broken windows than live behind that huge fence". Then I thought of all sorts of examples of aggressive organizational behavior in our society that is tolerated, even though their behavior could easily be perceived as unfair or intrusive. I'm not suggesting that all business behavior is universally tolerated, but rather that their fundamental commercial presence is often quietly accepted. For example, we forgive the school's fence because we deem urban play areas for children are worth the tradeoffs. We also forgive Apple's fierce closedness, Google's ads, and Nike's ubiquitous branding. What's most interesting to me, however, is that we don't have a single standard for what is tolerated. There are some interesting nuances here. For example, I doubt my neighborhood would have tolerated a condo developer building a fence like that, and ubiquitous branding around your religion’s holiday is generally frowned upon.


Has news innovation stalled? The last decade has seen significant shifts in how news is created and delivered: grassroots publishing and online news aggregators have resulted in shifting advertising dollars and widespread panic in traditional mass media outlets. However, fresh approaches both in traditional media and in new media exploration has felt scarce as of late. Most of the recent thinking around news delivery involves slapping the latest social technology idea or delivery device onto a news outlet and calling it innovation. Or worse, a retreat into potential profitability through a focus on niche or hyperlocal audiences. Of course, some exceptions exist, but there is too much opportunity tied up in new technology and the shifting demands of the public to slow down the exploration of new ideas.

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Conversations around VRM often include impassioned demands for more customer control. We live in an increasingly decentralized world with more customer choice, yet vendors continue to fiercely collect and control customer data and exploit the opportunities therein. It is no surprise that VRM can serve as a rallying cry of sorts for frustrated customers wanting to take back control from vendor lock-in, offensive communications, and privacy and security concerns in a world of mishandled personal data.


How can a public radio listener take greater control of their relationship with public media?

This was (more or less) the question posed to a public media-savvy group last week at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Led by Doc Searls, our ad hoc team explored how to equip the public media audience with a VRM tool to better drive their relationship with existing broadcasters, distributors, and shows.

So the nagging thing about community is… what exactly is it? I feel compelled to ask, since the term gets tossed around quite a bit in the blogosphere and elsewhere. The term “social networking” was great back in 2002, but community seems to better capture the current ethos of getting together to do something meaningful. Or when referring to an online community, at least complaining about something meaningful.

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