Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 5, 2011 4:04 PM

The Wisdom Of One

Do you think that Social Media can fuel innovation?

It's a topic that Francisco Dao tackled in The Washington Post on July 29th, 2011 in an op-ed piece titled, We share too much, and it's stifling innovation: "But are the ideas of a select few really important when it comes to driving innovation? Contrary to the current zeitgeist, which dictates that the crowd is wise and innovation comes from listening to everyone's feedback, I believe breakthrough innovations -- the type that create new markets -- are typically the result of a visionary (or visionaries) who ignored the fickle whims of public opinion. These visionaries need a sounding board of like-minded individuals who can grasp their ideas. They don't need the feedback of the poorly-informed masses."

We need to be cautious about the wisdom of crowds when it comes to innovation.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known to have said during the development of the iPad that, "It's not the consumers' job to figure out what they want." We tend to confuse our definitions and they become these unwieldy roots that grow beneath the discourse. Social Media helps people to mobilize, share, communicate and connect. I'm not sure where (or when) anyone ever said that the masses are any good at innovating? In fact, if you look at the results of any mass innovation experiment, you don't see much. On the other hand, mass collaboration has been very successful. Would you say that the masses were responsible for the innovations that are Wikipedia or Linux? I would not. Those two ideas were brought forward by a small handful of individuals who had the innovation and the innovative idea to open it up and allow the masses to collaborate.

What comes from mass collaboration?

New ideas and new uses are the by-product of innovation (look no further than Chris Messina and how he stumbled into creating hashtags for Twitter). I wonder if we would have hashtags had Messina tweeted out, "maybe together we can think of a way to group conversations together on Twitter?" The result of that experiment would probably have failed. Much in the same way, if Guy Laliberte set up a focus group to figure out the next iteration of the circus, instead of having his own very innovative perspective that led to the creation of Cirque du Soleil. This doesn't make the masses stupid and it doesn't mean that we all live in groupthink because of Social Media. It also doesn't mean that we share too much information and it doesn't mean that all of this connectivity, sharing (and yes, oversharing) is having a stifling effect on innovation. In fact, quite the opposite.

How over-sharing drives innovation.

I would argue that innovation comes from both frustration and inspiration. We see something out in the world, we see a better way to do it that doesn't exist, so we invent it. In a world where information and ideas are now everywhere (instead of locked up in institutions like museums and dance theaters or relegated to a monthly print publication), the general masses are more exposed than ever before to ideas, information and perspectives. How could that not drive innovation? Not a day goes by that I don't see something in these digital spheres that acts as a catalyst for inspiration (and yes, I'm often frustrated with much that I experience as well). Has that led to anything truly innovative out of me? That's for others to decide, but I'm sure that Mark Zuckerburg's inspiration for Facebook came out of some type of frustration from his online experience. I'm also quite certain that Zuckerburg never had a moment of thought towards the notion that the masses would help him in the ideation of his innovation. What he discovered, ultimately, is that the masses are an amazing mechanism for making ideas spread, providing feedback (both good and bad) and giving ideation over incremental improvements, but those aren't necessarily innovations.

In the end, sharing is not going to stifle innovation. It's going to inspire it. What do you think?

By Mitch Joel