Creating The “Right” Network — Using Diversity to be “Slow”

I do not link to Kathy Sierra’s blog enough. She writes amazing and helpful advice about design, coding and well, just making your users happy.

But her recent post, “The Dumbness of Crowds” definitely has me thinking these days about gathering networks and growing yourself. In it, Sierra laments that people have mistranslated James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (a book that my wife has promised me for, of all things, Valentine’s Day) and basically has taken the flavor out of individuals.

She then goes through a brilliant litany of differences between what she calls “Collective intelligence” and “The Dumbness of Crowds.” Here’s an example:

“Collective Intelligence” is about getting input and ideas from many different people and perspectives.

“Dumbness of Crowds” is blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough.
(It’s not always the averaging that’s the problem it’s the
blindly part)

Now I’ve written recently on “Me-too-ism” in the Web 2.0 world”, basically arguing that we want people who will be committed to a cause to the extent that they want to shut out dissenting voices. The important thing about that discussion is that you do not necessarily want them to succeed in shutting out those voices. In that article I made a solid claim for the philosopher — the person who will make solid calls on the group behavior and moderate the field.

In other places there have been challenges to defences of “Group Think” as well. The implication is that a diligently critical mind can be the solution to “really bad” groupthink (meaning desiring unity to a violent or propagandic extent) .

My position is that cultures develop and “Group think” is not something that someone can overcome so easily.

Assumptions and “Group think” happen out of necessity — they are a survival mechanism in humans to coordinate behaviors. Humans, even the most solitary ones, are a social animal. We depend on others for our survival. It has gotten to the extent that a disaster tens of thousands of miles away will have serious impacts on my own domestic choices. War in Iraq causes gas prices to go up and I walk to work more.

But I have to agree that we do not want a society that assumes something to be true simply because the majority believe it. Stephen Colbert satirically coined “truthiness” and “wikiality” to poke fun at the very notion that something must be right if some kind of consensus can be built about it. I just don’t think that critical thinking is the solution to the problem. I think that acceptence of diversity (which, I admit, does require some critical thinking — but it requires an open heart more) is the solution.

Acceptence of diversity is hard because it requires that you accept and face those things that make you uncomfortable. When someone sees the world differently from you, the reaction will be fear, irritation, boredom, and anxiety. That’s why I admire people like Norah Vincent. Her book Self-made Man describes her experience of portraying a man and going to the places where she was least comfortable (raunchy strip-bars, bowling alleys etc.) so to understand them better.

That’s what I think bloggers should do to prevent a “bad” Group Think society. The people who make us most upset or uncomfortable might be the best ones to keep us in check in our beliefs. These are the people you want commenting on your blogs (assuming they apply reasonable standards of decency — no threats, needless ad hominems and trolls etc.).

Having groups of people following the same thoughts and assumptions is not a problem. Having everyone with the same thoughts and assumptions (other than broad-based ethical values like “respect for life”) would be bad. That’s why I propose the following for anyone building a knowledge network for themselves.

  1. Read the blogs of those with whom you disagree. Lots of library non-users think librarians are nothing but overpaid book-shelvers. Aren’t these people a better window to our souls than the biggest library advocates?
  2. Welcome dissenters in your own blog. If they contradict everything you say, so what? There’s nothing they can do to stop you from writing your own posts and comments. If they get out of hand, just ignore them and let them have the last word. The last word is not always the best word.
  3. Assume a Charitable Reading of a bad comment, or even better — assume your dissenter is right! Even if you end up being right in the end, your dissenter has done you the favor of identifying gaps in your argument that you may be able to fill.
  4. Befriend the weirdo. There’s a line in The Tipping Point that the most interesting and important people to talk to in a crowd are the people who appear out of place. If you are ever at a meeting of suits and a goth appears, it’s the goth that you want to talk to. It’s the goth that will be able to uncover your own proclivities toward groupthink and sameness. I’m not sure where you find the weirdo in the blog world, but this might be a start.
  5. Deal with illegalities accordingly, but don’t hold a grudge. A grudge is groupthink in action. Worse, a grudge probably also means that you are thinking about your opponent alot more than your opponent thinks about you.

If Web 2.0 emphasizes community, then the blogger needs to think hard about what community means to him or her. In my view community is not a straight-forward “majority wins” kind of world, although the majority probably should win most times. Community to me means arguments and grievances, negotiation and disputes combined with a fair deal of comraderie and friendship. Heck, even throw some love and relationships in there too. The ideal world is one where you get all sorts of views from all sorts of places.

I can only hope that this blog may someday gather this sort of “community” one day.