Coolhunt Log #7
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Scott Cooper, MIT researcher with the Sloan School of Management, co-author of Coolhunting
Peter Gloor, MIT researcher with the Sloan School of Management, co-author of Coolhunting
Steve O'Keefe, moderator
Leading the Coolhunt today is Peter Gloor.
PETER: There was a New York Times article yesterday documenting Wikipedia's coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. I find the article really inspiring.
The story begins:
IMAGINE a newspaper with more than 2,000 writers,
researchers and copy editors, yet no supervisors or
managers to speak of. No deadlines; no meetings to plan
coverage; no decisions handed down through a chain of
command; no getting up on a desk to lead a toast after
a job well done.
PETER: Further down in the article, there is a quote: "The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work." Let's now move to Wikipedia, starting with the entry for the Virginia Tech incident.
PETER: The Wikipedia article was originally entitled "Virginia Tech Shooting," then there was a discussion to rename it "Virginia Tech Massacre." If you click on the Discussion tab at the top of the page, you can see people discussing the name change. You can see the user Vranak defending his position of including the word "massacre" in the title. Wikipedia has total transparency in their operations.
MODERATOR: Isn't this what drives people crazy about Wikipedia? The idea that so many people have so much time to debate such a minor point as changing the name of the entry from "Virginia Tech Shooting" to "Virginia Tech Massacre"?
PETER: Well, I don't think it's a minor point. I think it's all about coolhunting, actually. The people involved in grooming this entry thought it was important. Right now it's cool to participate in Wikipedia. This might change. Yesterday, we had an interesting discussion about Wikipedia at MIT's Sloan School of Management. When the speaker, Kevin Crowston, was talking I was thinking, "How long will it be cool to be a Wikipedian?" Crowston discussed the growth rate of new users signing up for Wikipedia. In 2001, there were around 2,000 people. Today, it's growing at such an exponential rate that, theoretically, it will take less than 10 years for everyone in the world to be a Wikipedian.
MODERATOR: How long do you think it will take before everyone has an entry on Wikipedia?
PETER: We discussed that, too. Right now, there is a requirement for an entry to be something newsworthy. Combine Facebook, MySpace, and Wikipedia, and you get a worldwide universe of virtually everyone online.
SCOTT: As an aside, there is no entry at Wikipedia for "Peter Gloor." The entry for "Scott Cooper" is not me -- it's a Boston Red Sox baseball player. If you search for "Peter Gloor" at Wikipedia, you will see an entry for Collaborative Innovation Networks, which references Peter's book on Swarm Creativity. There's also a page called coolhunting, though it's not about our book.
PETER: As far as everyone in the world becoming active Wikipedians, I think that will not happen. At some point in time, nearly everything stops being "cool" because everyone is doing it. Usually, when I give talks about the concept of "cool" and coolhunting, I ask people what's cooler: the iPod from Apple or the other mp3 player from Microsoft. Most people say the iPod is cooler. When I asked this last time in Helsinki, one of the most trendsetting cities, someone said it's so much cooler to have an mp3 player from Singapore because everyone has the iPod: "The iPod is mainstream and boring."
MODERATOR: You're using "cool" now in the sense we tend to think the word means, which is not necessarily what Coolhunting is about.
PETER: I think they go together. In our book, we make some distinctions between "cool" just being something that sells really well and something that touches an emotional nerve. In particular, we think that "cool" things also have some aspects of the greater good.
SCOTT: That is actually the definition that applies to Wikipedia and speaks directly to Peter's point. It is unlikely that Wikipedia will still be "cool" at some point in the future. What I think we would predict is that something even better will become the next cool thing -- perhaps something with the best elements of Wikipedia that will become even more pronounced in a new online community, or maybe something we can't even yet imagine.
PETER: We can speculate what it might be, for example YouTube combined with Wikipedia, a combination of articles with videos.
SCOTT: There are already hybrid forms of the underlying ideas behind Wikipedia. For instance, here in Boston, a new newspaper called BostonNOW was launched just within the last few days.
SCOTT: It's a free newspaper, distributed at public transit stops. It's competing with a free newspaper called Metro which is part of a worldwide chain. BostonNOW's objective is to become a "blog newspaper." It wants to eventually solely print blog-style articles so that the entire city of readers is also the writers of the newspaper. It has already begun to try to draw people into the creation of a newspaper by having a daily online editorial meeting. It's a videoconference and anyone can join and speak and help plan the next day's edition of the paper. Within a short time span, the readers will write the newspaper everyday.
PETER: I think the bigger question is, "How are those articles being produced?" There is very little original content. Instead, the articles are derived from other accessible news sources.
MODERATOR: What often makes "original news" is the perspective, or the commentary. You can say an article is original by the comments that string along behind it. Many of those comments are, in fact, "original news" reports.
PETER: I think that's a delicate discussion. I don't think it's a good idea to have fully individualized newspapers.
SCOTT: To some degree, what we can expect for the future is a combination of all of these things we've talked about: an opportunity for people to pick and choose the news they read, but also to participate in writing those news stories.
PETER: I think in this context, I beg to differ. A newspaper like Metro is the antithesis of personalized news, whereas something like BostonNOW is tremendously personalized.
SCOTT: The objective is to actually open the decision-making process regarding what's going to be in the newspaper to the readers themselves. It's not going to be perfect.
MODERATOR: There is a section in Coolhunting that covers the "madness of crowds." For example, there is potential for user participation to actually destabilize an entry in Wikipedia or in some ways paralyze a news delivery organization that is just simply incapable of keeping up with a surge. For example, on the day of Anna Nicole's death, her Wikipedia entry was frozen due to so many user updates. [A LiveJournal community for celebrity gossip was also rendered useless for a short time due to a surge in activity.]
PETER: There have been experiments on Wikipedia where people tried to see how stable it is. It has proven to be amazingly stable. A professor (whose name I can't recall) entered inaccurate information on approximately 20 Wikipedia entries. He wanted to see how long it would take Wikipedia to fix the errors. Within 30 minutes, all 20 of the entries were corrected -- even ones in the most obscure entries. Once they discovered his first error, they searched using his username to find the others and correct them all.
PETER: History is full of examples of crowds going off the track, and we discuss this in our book. For example, the tulip frenzy, or the Nazi movement in Germany after World War I. Entire countries have totally gone off the track. There was recently a really interesting experiment. Newspaper ads invited people to come to an exhibition hall. There were then some experiments as far as crowd behavior goes. Out of the 300, the researchers secretly told only 10 to reverse the direction they were walking. The others followed. We are cattle. If a large enough arc of the population deviates from the right direction, then the others will follow.
MODERATOR: Wikipedia has taken measures to protect the open editing of entries, such as entries dealing with religion and politics, that are enormously controversial, watched very closely, and debated very hotly. Does that kind of sabotage and marketing that also goes on in Wikipedia damage its use as an indicator of the wisdom of crowds.
PETER: I think what that shows is, unfortunately, the same thing as the open environment of the early days of the Internet. There are always bad guys out there. And there are opinions that people believe in strongly.
SCOTT: These are examples not of problems with the technology of collective intelligence or collaborative innovation, but problems with human beings and the discourse we have in our society. It is somewhat related to the technology because the online world atomizes people in a certain way, being dissociated with genuine human contact. All that being said, Wikipedia is remarkably self-correcting.
MODERATOR: What about Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives good money out of circulation." In the early days of UseNet and other mailing lists on the Internet, there were frequently one or two obnoxious posters who would drive everybody else off the list. How can Wikipedia or any other user-generated forum prevent Gresham's Law from taking effect?
PETER: That's a very tough question. Unfortunately, you need enforcement of the rules.
SCOTT: The good news is that we are observing that the more people involved, the less likely these sorts of things are to happen. Wikipedia is an example. The kinds of things you're talking about are the exception rather than the rule.
PETER: Let's return to our discussion of citizen journalism, by looking at Assignment Zero.
PETER: This website is the vision of Jay Rosen. It's similar to Wikipedia; however, it attempts to keep the level of professionalism much higher by producing high quality, original articles. Assignment Zero requires original research, such as interviews. If you think you are a journalist of professional quality, you can sign up here and collaborate on a story. To get started, you can click on the link from the top menu, "How This Works" and scroll down to the section called "How Can You Get Started?"
I'd also like to point out the "About" page. This is an example of how an organization creates trust. Users want to see the faces of the people behind the projects. If you scroll down on the About page, the last entry is "You." When you click on that word, "You," you get to the list of user journalists. That's the crowd they have recruited so far. You can click on a user's profile, then select the "recent activities" tab, and see their contributions to the site. There's also a tab for a contributor's "reporting topics."
Another example of an attempt at high-level online journalism is a Boston-based journal JoVE: Journal of Visual Experiments.
PETER: It's really high-end research, still mostly about the sciences, but it's in a totally new format. It's a new way of publishing research papers using video to supplement a text presentation.
SCOTT: Videos can be uploaded here instead of, or in addition to, writing a journal article.
MODERATOR: This site gives users the ability to leave comments and to upload supplementary files. It makes information with other researchers around the world faster and easier. It allows people with these similar, narrow interests to collaborate.
We are out of time. Thank you very much, Peter and Scott. Listeners, please post your comments to the Swarm Creativity Blog -- whether they're about commentary on the subject of today's coolhuntany or connection problems you experienced.
Join us tomorrow for the next installment of our live, online coolhunt with Peter Gloor and Scott Cooper.
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