November 8, 2006

News & Opinion: Business Book to Use Wisdom of Crowds Approach

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 10:48 PM – Filed under: Publishing Industry

Shared Insights is working with folks from Wharton and MIT to create a business book that will be written by thousands of people. The project is called We Are Smarter Than Me. They are using wiki technology to let The Crowd contribute their ideas and writings to the project. They have a working table of contents and some content in each of the chapters. A number of people sent me a link to the Publisher's Weekly article that ran yesterday.

Here are some things that caught my attention:
  • In signing up to join the project, you have to given them everything short of your social security number. The required fields included address, phone number, company type, position, and size of employer. Much too hard. They don't need any of that information and I would have walked away had I not been writing this post.
  • If you read their privacy policy, they say they are collecting this information to "optimize" their ability to serve to community. This is what they mean by that:
    The Personal Information you provide will be kept confidential and used to support your relationship with We Are Smarter Than Me. Except as discussed in this policy, we will not sell or otherwise disclose your Personal and Business Information to any outside parties.

    We may, however, provide our corporate members with your name, title, company, address, phone number and e-mail address. Corporate members are industry-leading companies who supply products and services to your industry. Corporate members are committed to our policy of maintaining an environment free of commercial pressure. We may also share personally identifiable information with law enforcement or other entities as required by law or as we reasonably determine to be necessary to protect our rights or the rights of others, to prevent harm to persons or property, to fight fraud, or to enforce our web site terms of use.

    So, they are saying they won't share it with anyone, except businesses that give them a bunch of money.
  • If you read the terms of service, you find a number of things. The community manager (We Are Smarter Than Me, LLC) owns the all rights to all the content submitted to the site. In exchange for joining the community, members are granted an attribution, non-commerical Creative Commons license. So, here the company can make money and contributors cannot.
  • Profits that are made on the WAS project are going to be contributed to charity. Here is the exact verbage:
    We recognize your contribution to this Community and we want you to help us direct any financial rewards that result from the fruits of our collective efforts. At the end of calendar year 2007, we will ask all Members who have contributed to the WAS Book wiki project (Contributing Members) to help us select one or more charities to which the Community Manager will contribute the profit from royalties from the WAS Book. As such, if royalties are earned from the WAS Book, then all proceeds from such royalties, net of costs for the creation of the Community, the writing and editing of the WAS Book and any other out of pocket expenses of the Community Manager in connection with the Community and the WAS Book, will be allocated to the charity voted on by a majority of the Contributing Members at the end of calendar year 2007.

    These statements about net costs and out of pocket expenses always scare me. The costs of writing and editing the book? I thought that is why you are bringing in The Crowd.

Beyond the Terms and Conditions problems I have with this, I am not sure this is going to work. James Surowiecki's collective intelligence model rests on a number of ideas:
(a) that there are some things that crowds can't do (they need to be given a problem with a discrete or quantifiable set of possible answers from which to choose), (b) that care must be taken in the 'qualification' of the crowd to meet Surowiecki's conditions of nonbias (they must understand the problem, be diverse in their perspectives, independent of groupthink tendencies and each able to bring a bit of unique knowledge to the problem, and (c) that there needs to be some incentive for people to participate in the crowd (those guessing correctly the number of jelly beans in the large jar at least win the jelly beans) ...[Hat Tip: IFTF, How to Save The World]

I would direct you to Surowiecki's first point. There is no set of specific answers to this problem of writing a business book. If you want to predict elections or jelly beans in a jar, go to The Crowd. I think you read a business book for a particular perspective from an expert on a given problem and hope that it will help you understand better the problems that you are dealing with.

What are all your thoughts on the method We Are Smarter Than We is using to write the book as well as the conditions they have built in?