Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
January 11, 2010 4:18 PM

The Great Race To The Middle

With everyone offering up their opinions and ideas, is there no fear that the end aggregated result will simply be something very mediocre?

This has been one of the prevailing thoughts when it comes to Wikipedia and the readability of the content. There are those who feel that as more and more of these articles get edited by more and more individuals, that the net result is a dry and boring piece of content that lacks style, flair and any sort of real heart. The same could be said for consumer reviews as well. How often have you looked for a hotel on TripAdvisor only to realize that there are many who loved the hotel and an equal amount of people who hated it. What to do? In the end, the aggregated result leaves you flat in the middle. You're left with what you always had: your own instincts to sort the wheat from the chaff and hope for the best.

How are we going to make any legitimate decisions if all of the contributing thoughts lead you right to the middle?

Just today, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled, World Wide Mush, in their book section (although this site is by subscription only, please check out this link as it might help you circumvent the pay wall: Lifehacker - Get Free Access to Pay-Walled Content with a Simple Google Hack) written by Jaron Lanier who is widely regarded as the father of virtual-reality technology. The editorial is actually an excerpt from his book, You Are Not a Gadget (which will be in stores next week). Here's a piece of that article:

"Here's one problem with digital collectivism: We shouldn't want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don't get innovation. If you want to foster creativity and excellence, you have to introduce some boundaries. Teams need some privacy from one another to develop unique approaches to any kind of competition. Scientists need some time in private before publication to get their results in order. Making everything open all the time creates what I call a global mush. There's a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn't proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code--like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe's Flash-- always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth."

That whole paragraph deserves a re-read. I'll wait for you...

When everybody can say and do everything does this lead us right to the middle? Does this lead us to a point where nothing original or real comes through? If we were to develop a new form of transportation would the collective simply come up with "faster horses" (based on the infamous quote from Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.")? It's something to think about in a world where Marketers are demanding that brands open up and embrace their consumers as co-developers. It also forces us to re-evaluate what truly lies at the heart of innovation and what makes a company successful (or a complete flop).

Lanier continues:

"Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. If you suggested that, say, Google, Apple and Microsoft should be merged so that all their engineers would be aggregated into a giant wiki-like project--well you'd be laughed out of Silicon Valley so fast you wouldn't have time to tweet about it. Same would happen if you suggested to one of the big venture-capital firms that all the start-ups they are funding should be merged into a single collective operation. But this is exactly the kind of mistake that's happening with some of the most influential projects in our culture, and ultimately in our economy. Digital collectivism might seem participatory and democratic, but it's painting us into a corner from which we will have to concoct an awkward escape."

It's an interesting place for us to be: now that we have the tools and platforms where anyone can have an idea and publish it to the world in text, images, audio and video and leave it totally open to dialogue and collaboration (mostly for free), does it take away some of the individuality (perhaps uniqueness) that makes great stories go viral or the ability for ideas to spread in a more powerful and meaningful way?

What do you think? Is this digital collectivism a good thing or will it ruin true innovation?

By Mitch Joel