SxSWi Report: Designing for the Wisdom of Crowds

NB: I have long wanted to attend SxSwi – where the cool geeks go to party – and this year had my first opportunity to do so, thanks to Sun. This conference is great bang for the buck: registration cost only $450, for four days of good, solid talks. I’ve been meaning for some time to write about sessions I attended and what I learned from them, but time keeps getting away from me. Here’s the first in a series. I hope the next will follow in reasonably short order – but I don’t guarantee that!

I attended Derek Powazek’s talk (slides), which was inspired by James Surowiecki‘s book The Wisdom of Crowds.

Why I attended this session: I work with communities, both online and off. And Powazek is a well-known name in web design, which has been part of my career, so this confluence of topics was irresistible to me.

From my notes:

Surowiecki’s premise is that the aggregate wisdom of “the crowd” can be greater than the wisdom of a single individual (no matter how expert).

According to Surowiecki, the elements of wise crowds are:

  • diversity
  • independence
  • decentralization
  • aggregation

Powazek gave suggestions on how to make the wisdom of the crowd work online:

  • give small, simple tasks (e.g., one-click vote on Hot or Not) – This works best when there is a definite outcome, e.g. a Threadless shirt design is chosen. A grass-roots news site gave a list of desired interviewees, participants then conducted the interview(s) of their choice via email
  • try to have a large, diverse group of participants – This is a sticky point. The Internet is inherently a place where it’s easy for people of all kinds to congregate (absent language barriers), but we still clump with people who mostly think like us. It takes effort to create a truly diverse crowd.
  • design for selfishness: participants have to get something out of it for themselves, even just a chance to win. The “greater good” is not sufficient motivation. (But personal glory can be.)
  • aggregate results so that individual behavior (e.g., tagging) leads to collective wisdom

(However, there’s the Heisenberg Problem: scoring creates a game, and therefore an incentive to cheat.)

Popularity does not have to rule. Amazon’s reviews/ratings are displayed with a histogram of results, and readers can rate each review (“was this helpful? yes/no”), giving feedback on the feedback.

Consider both implicit and explicit feedback.


  • page views
  • searches
  • rate of change
  • interestingness

Explicit = voting and rating, but never ask people to do more thinking than they have to, e.g. use a simple yes/no or thumbs up/thumbs down wherever possible.

Note, however, that you get better data when you don’t ask the question.

Design Matters -  The mood of responses became happier when the color scheme changed from dark to light.

Red vs. blue – In testing, people shown blue backgrounds responded with more imagination, while red backgrounds led to better attention to detail. This may occur because red is a danger sign, so people are primed to be more cautious when they see red, whereas blue is calming, so they feel freer to be creative.

(Sun’s corporate theme color is blue, Oracle’s is red. Uh oh.)

Filling in the Blanks

For me, this was the payoff from this talk. Powazek described a study on how people’s feelings of not being in control lead them to see patterns (e.g., conspiracies) where none exist.

He has also written about this in Meaning-Making Machines:

This is relevant online because we have much less input than in real-life social situations. Virtual communications like email, blog comments, and instant messages come without the associated social data our brains are used to. In the absence of context, our brains fill in the rest. What we fill it in with is a byproduct of our own insecurities.

My own thoughts on this:

If you’ve spent much time interacting with people online in email, forums, blogs and comments, you know how easy it is misunderstand someone’s character or intentions when you only know them through text.

Misunderstandings can occur because of differences in language, culture and writing skills, as well as the above-mentioned human propensity to fill in our mental gaps with worst-case assumptions. We are especially negative in our assumptions when we don’t feel in control in our own lives – and, these days, who does? The result is flame wars and other online unpleasantness that simply doesn’t happen in real life.

In my first distance-working experience, I also learned that it’s hard for human beings to work with someone they’ve never seen. I suspect that we don’t quite believe someone is real until we’ve seen them face-to-face. In my six years working from Italy for a Silicon Valley company, I noticed that colleagues were poor at responding to me until they’d met me once (I traveled to California four times a year), then their attitude would change radically. It wasn’t that I did anything particular on my visits to inspire cooperation; it was simply that they now could put a face to the emails and the voice on the phone. I guess that’s human.

Conversely, we can have warm feelings for people we’ve only seen on screens. I have twice now embarrassed myself meeting actors in unexpected contexts, the first at CES, and, more recently, at SxSWi itself: I was wandering the halls when I saw a familiar face. This wasn’t unexpected at SxSWi; videoblogging buds and other folks I know were there. So my brain registered “someone I know and like,” and I rushed up to greet her with an enthusiastic “Hi!” before my memory kicked in with: “You know her from Buffy and Dr. Horrible.” She was completely unfazed; I’m sure this happens a lot to actors.

All this is why I’ve encouraged the Sun teams I’ve filmed to shoot brief introductions of themselves to share online: if you’ve seen their faces and heard their voices in video, you’re more likely to treat them kindly when responding to their text (e.g. in an online forum). And it’s easier to feel a sense of community, kinship, and cooperation with people you’ve seen and heard, even if only via recorded video.

The next step is to get video from non-Sun members of our developer communities. Working on it!

Returning to Powazek, he concluded his talk with some examples of the above-mentioned principles in action, such as a crowd-curated photography exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

Rating: A great and useful talk. I should go read his books.

1 comment

  1. Awesome talk, Dierdré. Thanks for sharing this. I’m going to have to go read his other stuff, as well as Wisdom of Crowds.

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