An Event Apart: The Wisdom of Communities

by Luke Wroblewski May 7, 2009

Derek Powazek's Wisdom of Communities talk at An Event Apart Seattle outlined strategies for getting the most out of online communities and dealing with bad behavior from trolls.

  • Web is the first medium that allows people to talk back but sometimes the conversation needs support to thrive
  • Wisdom of Crowds theory shows that, in aggregate, crowds are smarter than any single individual in the crowd. See this online in most emailed features, bit torrent, etc.
  • Wise crowds are built on a few key characteristics: diversity (of opinion), independence (of other ideas), decentralization, and aggregation.
  • Bringing Wisdom of Crowds online: small simple tasks, large diverse groups, design for selfishness, result aggregation
  • Small Simple Tasks: in many cases we are asking people to do a lot. Simple tasks bound interactions to a smaller range of options.
  • Large Diverse Groups: the more people involved, the better the outcome. When things go wrong in wisdom of crowds, there is usually not enough diversity or size in the crowd.
  • Design for Selfishness: when you see groups that end up in “group think”, it is usually because participants feel like they are responsible for the health of the community. But really only the admins are.
  • Result aggregation: results are numbers, numbers become scores, and scores create games. This creates some unintended consequences. Need to align game play with something productive that supports the purpose of a site.
  • Stanford prison experiment: Separated students into guards and prisoners. It was called off after six days due to abuses, riots, etc.
  • This is the same thing that happens when some people are made wikipedia moderators and others are not.
  • Trolls: their behavior is intended to elicit responses. They poke at people to get them to freak out. The troll is person that did something before someone else freaked out or the person trying to steer people toward controversy.
  • Stopping trolls: silent treatment, disable puppets, timeouts.
  • Silent treatment: the only person who can see what they post is the troll. They are hidden and no one gives them attention so they go away.
  • Disable puppets: May also go away if you give them server errors or slow them down.
  • Timeouts: deleting accounts sometimes creates more problems. Instead of deleting outright, parts of site can be put on hold for a day, hour, week, etc.
  • Heisenberg problem: how do you leverage Wisdom of Crowds without biasing behaviors?
  • Flickr interestingness problem: people would game it to try and get photos noticed. The leader board interface may have been to blame. The new interestingness design shows 9 random photos from 500 most interesting.
  • Threadless does not show voting data until contest is over to avoid gaming. Polls: you get to see results only after you vote.
  • Popularity does not have to rule. Can use editorial or other means of display. Example: Amazon reviews show most helpful favorable review and most helpful critical review.
  • Implicit & Explicit feedback: main difference is does person know they are voting.
  • Implicit feedback: pageviews, searches, velocity, interestingness. People don’t know they are voting so this represents “true” behavior. Should use implicit behavior before you use explicit feedback.
  • Design matters: changing color & style can shift conversational tone. The interface you give people to collect wisdom will greatly influence what they create. Experiments show the impact design decisions can have.
  • Our brains take a lot sensory information and create stories to make sense of the world. The online world comes without a lot of social cues we have in the real world. People fill in based on their own perception.
  • When you induce your brain to feel out of control, you find things that may not be there. When you are in control, you are a lot less likely to make things up.
  • When deprived of social data, we make it up. How do we create experiences that create a feeling of in control? If we do, the Web can be better.