The Great Race To The Middle

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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?


  1. Lanier’s key line is this: “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.”
    And it’s true. Digital collectivism exists only insofar as profits come into the picture. Meaning that one can collaborate online for a school project, or form a new company, or to solicit consumer input, or to create community, etc… but at the end of the day, real companies and projects are actually walled gardens. Some entity has got to own and benefit from the core of any given project.
    We may be in early days, but something tells me that the financial forces that be. e.g. corporations, (or political powers or otherwise) can’t allow for too much leeway with respect to seeding power to the powerless. Let’s be clear that the majority of people do what they do for a paycheck. Collectivism becomes a bit shady when it comes to dividing up a paycheck.
    Sure there are cases when people engage on account of their interests, hobbies, etc… but those are community efforts. The same rules don’t apply to the madpaced world of global enterprise.

  2. This is fascinating. I’m so glad I saw your tweet requesting comments on this.
    I think that we have to remember that commenting and contributing ideas are not the same as deciding what gets done or how the information gets used. Just because someone leaves me a negative comment on my blog, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to delete my post, stop writing or change my mind. *I* am in control of the content there. But I still value comments very highly.
    On one hand, the internet IS about collaboration with people you might never otherwise get to talk to. How banal would everything be with only the points of view of those we see every day? An expansive viewpoint is valuable.
    I do consume a lot of material on the internet, but I don’t watch or read 99.999999% of all the videos on You Tube, the content on blogs, or listen to every podcast. But there are those that I come back to on a regular basis.
    I am also able to find new and valuable content based on recommendations of the people I have a trust relationship with. These filters in the form of trusted people are what helps me condense, index and find the thoughts about specific topics from people I know and trust. If there is too much noise on TripAdvisor about some topic, I’ll probably just go to a different channel to find the information I need from people I trust.
    Also, I believe that the idea of the internet as an average of everything on it is flawed.
    Think of this analogy. If, statistically, there is a 10% chance that any person in Canada will get hit by a snow plow on any given day in January, it doesn’t mean that YOU will get hit by a snow plow in one of the next 10 days. Statistics don’t apply to individuals, but only to the aggregate population.
    I think of all the ideas on internet in the same way. You can’t “average” an idea or opinion. This is a difficulty with polls too. It’s very difficult to apply a number to an opinion. When you do that, something is inevitably lost.
    The thing is that if you COULD somehow merge Microsoft, Google and Apple, you wouldn’t end up with an AVERAGE of their companies. You have have a series of decisions to make about whose technology, vendors, contracts and people to include in the post-merged corporation where there were overlaps.
    When things like this happen and they produce mediocrity, it’s often because the person making the decisions aren’t well enough informed or are too disconnected from the details of the issue to actually make a good choice. It’s not that there is too much input in situations like this. It’s that there is too little.
    Ironically, if it were somehow possible–through increased collaboration–to let the people in charge of the details make such decisions, large mergers might turn out better than if only big-picture folks are involved.
    What do you think?

  3. I would suggest that digital collectivism isn’t necessarily the only tool required for good innovation process. It’s one possibility but should be used judiciously. In Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki writes about how a crowd at a country fair submitted guesses as to the weight of an ox and while no 1 answer was correct, the average of the guesses was bang on. In other words, there was a right answer that a crowd “collaborated” on to discover. Innovative product development doesn’t necessarily have a “right” answer and thinking that it does will lead to the average, literally.
    One way to use collective intelligence in an innovation process is to pose research questions to different communities and look for themes, trends and possible combinations in the answers. This requires someone to look for those trends and bring their “expert” intelligence and insight to tease the possibilities out of that input.

  4. I think Lanier might be misinterpreting what’s really happening. Digital collectivism isn’t going beat all good ideas into mediocrity. Companies aren’t going to radically change how they build and protect innovations. What is happening is the growing conversations happening on the Web are providing a massive incubator for ideas and new perspectives.
    In his book, Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch talks about a radical insight provided to GE from an outsider. A military officer observed that if GE divisions were trying to be tops in their markets, they could pretty easily accomplish that by how they defined their markets. It was an observation that changed the course of GE.
    In that case, GE flew in a bunch of outsiders who could provide some feedback on the company and its strategies. Now outside input abounds. The Web and the constant feedback it provides, makes it more likely that key insights come faster. The opportunity to track consumer behaviors and attitudes and spot trends is greater than ever before. Far from being detrimental, the digital collective is beneficial in its ability to bring to light issues about your company or industry and opportunities for innovation, just as Apple saw what was happening in online music and offered up iTunes and the iPod. That’s the influence of the digital collective.
    Lanier seems to want to change the culture of the Web. That won’t happen soon. But it may not be the threat he perceives it to be.

  5. I have to agree with Tim. None of the major brands are going to open up to the extent where consumers and digital collectivism is defining what they do. It’s merely input to the process.
    Take vitaminwater Connect flavor for example – I’m sure they never thought for a moment that all the flavors will be crowdsourced.
    Interesting topic and perspective nonetheless…!

  6. Well said Del and totally agree with you!
    I think the internet actually divides people each finding their own communities and place to hang out. More than ever brands are connecting with their customers and asking what they want in a product as opposed to being told. In doing so they create their own niche and make for a better product that people want.
    I would also add that it’s a very exciting time to be a consumer, never in our history have we been able to contribute our ideas and opinions in real time and see them take shape within months.
    Is Obama a ‘dull’ product? Don’t think so!

  7. Good post. Made me think of Clay Christensen’s analysis of this topic:
    Closed systems are most effective at creating fast innovations and creating/catch up to the market’s needs.
    Once the needs of the market are satisfied, the value does not reside in the closed system’s application itself, as much as in the components (think: the CPU vs. the PC). In this case, open systems will become more effective.

  8. Love this thought provoker so early in the moring. Thanks Mitch!
    In my opinion, the most successful outcomes are only achieved when projects are led by highly informed, passionate and driven individuals. Often it’s their insight, creativity and wisdom that are the ingrediants in creating something the rest of us might struggle to even visualise or comprehend.
    However, this doesn’t mean they can do it alone…there is of course collaboration with other teams and departments but in a controlled and managed way so that the collective effort contributes to the end result in a positive way rather than watering it down or reducing it to ‘death by committee’. Something quite hard to do and which usually accounts for many an unsatisfactory outcome.
    I think collaboration works best when properly managed so that it still allows the brightest and most creative stars to shine bright and bring something unique and unexpected to the table.

  9. Hey, great post Mitch. And I agree with many of the comments here, as well as a lot of what you’ve said. Does that make me mediocre? : )
    For what it’s worth:
    1) True innovators know how to act on information. So they love the fact that other people are busy collaborating on their behalf. Even if the result is mediocre. They then say “hey, I know how to take that mediocre idea and make it great!� or they say “hmmm, I’ll take one idea from column A and one from column B and combine it to make this really cool X�.
    2) Just because there’s a lot of stuff out there doesn’t mean we need to forget to have a business model. Profitability comes from being first, being proprietary or simply making things happen. Let the people talk all they want, and then be the person who acts on the ideas.
    3) Filtering systems can’t yet keep up with the influx of content. Personally, I love that – but it’s not for everyone. Come back a year from now and tell me how ways of filtering information have evolved – I bet you’ll see some real innovation simply because it’s a specific problem that needs to be solved. Good problems lead to good solutions.

  10. Very thought provoking. Thanks, Lisa Hickey, for bringing it to my attention. The first thing that came to mind was the old joke about “You know what a camel is? It’s a horse designed by a committee.” Then I thought, a horse that can go for days without water is actually pretty smart.
    However, I’m with Lanier on this. Anyone in the idea business knows the need for privacy holds true. “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.”
    We’re not ready to show it until we’re ready to show it. Until we’ve had a chance to sit with an idea, see how it resonates, does it make sense, and ask if there’s a way to push it further. I’m open to client input before and after the presentation. But allow us to make sure our ideas aren’t half-baked before you run with them.

  11. The opening question to your post provides a challenge and makes me think. Having named my blog -middlefocus- I wondered if the mediocrity tag would sting. I don’t share the premise that everyone is offering opinions and ideas. Being relatively new to the world of blogging and social media, I am aware that many in my friendship circle don’t get the social networking thing, thinking that it is at worst dangerous and at best distracting from real life. I am enthused however and counter that I think it is a good thing for people to share their opinions and ideas. And it is not all altruistic as the sharing offers particular benefits for the initiator.
    English novelist, EM Forster (1879-1970) once queried, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” He was referring of course to words in print. Forster’s words ring true in that by sharing opinions and ideas online (and getting and giving feedback) we can hone our thinking skills and get better at them. Engaging in dialogue allows us to clarify and improve our thinking.
    Forster could not have anticipated the internet. Yet in the epigraph to his 1910 work, Howard’s End he offers the motto, “Only Connect”. In our digital world of sharing opinions and ideas it is good if we “only connect”. In my view, the more the merrier. Thanks for the invitation to discuss. Chris

  12. I think you raise some really interesting points and ideas. I don’t think Lanier’s article is a very good way to support them.
    Lanier raises some interesting points and includes some compelling examples, particularly the iPhone, but overall his article feels too “all or nothing�–that all mass collaborations in all settings always turns to mush.
    What about the Linux kernel? There are a number good aspects to the open model that Lanier has overlooked, particularly the number of hugely successful and widely used open source software programs–all of which by definition, are free.
    Lanier’s criteria for the “best stuff� is confusing. “Sophisticated and influential�–maybe, but “lucrative?� It seems odd to make monetary success part of the criteria when the whole point is making these these programs freely available.

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