The Wisdom of Blogs

The Wisdom of Blogs

By Biz Stone

Finance professor Jack Treynor had no way of knowing that his breakthrough work with jelly beans was but a mere portent of the brilliance that would later manifest in an unrelated field of endeavor. Precious few scholars in the years to follow would be so bold as to predict that one day a hyperintelligent hive-mind would aggregate from chaos to form an enigmatic new species of knowledge. Ladies and gentlemen allow me to be so bold. Harken to the boundless acumen of the macro-mind; tune-in to the wisdom of blogs.

The Amazing Jelly Bean Experiment

Treynor asked his class to estimate how many jelly beans there were in a jar. When added together and averaged, the group's estimate was 871— there were 850 beans contained within the jar. Only one student had made a better guess (a rogue genius, if you will). The now historic jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment showed invariably that a group estimate is superior to the vast majority of individual guesses on a consistent basis.

Granted, there are limited situations in which knowing the amount of jelly beans in a jar is a significant accomplishment. Or even mildly amusing, come to think of it. Nevertheless, this example can be found along with 320 pages of other examples in a new book by James Surowiecki called The Wisdom of Crowds. In his book, Surowiecki demonstrates myriad situations where the many are smarter than the few.

"If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's 'collective intelligence' will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. 'Wise crowds' need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions." —Publisher's Weekly

Beans, Blogs, and Feeds

Four basic conditions? That's all you got, Surowiecki? Your conditions have just met their match: bloggers are a wise crowd.

  1. Diversity of opinion - That's a no-brainer. Bloggers publish hundreds of thousands of posts daily, each one charged with its author's unique opinion.
  2. Independence of members - Except for your friends saying "You've got to blog about that!" bloggers are not controlled by anyone else.
  3. Decentralization - There is no central authority in the blogosphere; publish your blog anywhere you want with any tool you want.
  4. A method for aggregating opinions - Blog feeds make aggregation a snap and there is no shortage of services that take advantage of that fact.

The MIT Media Lab project called Blogdex is one of the longest operating and most-visited opinion aggregators.

"Blogdex uses the links made by webloggers as a proxy to the things they are talking about. Webloggers typically contextualize their writing with hypertext links which act as markers for the subjects they are discussing. These markers are like tags placed on wild animals, allowing Blogdex to track a piece of conversation as it moves from weblog to weblog."

The wisdom of blogs is not demonstrated by how many jelly beans are in a jar. In fact, I stand against jelly beans. They're not really beans and they're not really jelly. Seeking the wisdom of blogs is more like consulting an oracle. Throughout the ancient Greek world there were temples one could visit to ask the all-knowing oracle a question — the answer was supposed to express the will of the gods. Instead of the will of the gods, questions posited to Blogdex are answered with the voice of the blogosphere.

The Modern Oracle

Every day, aggregators collect the diverse, decentralized opinions contained within blog posts and organize them. In the case of Blogdex, posts are put into a numbered list based on popularity. Popularity is measured by how many times a particular news story or web page has been linked to. These links are essentially votes in an ongoing campaign to elect information that is interesting, helpful, or enlightening. Instead of answering "How many jelly beans are in the jar?" the blog crowd is answering the unasked question, "What is worth my attention on the Web?"

Other players in this aggregation field go further than just displaying links. They provide users with the ability to search for answers. Technorati is one of these modern day oracles. Is Spider Man 2 a good movie? Let's ask three million people and have our answer in 2.984 seconds.

Spider Man 2 was an excellent movie
Spider Man 2 was a great movie
Spider man 2 was actually good
Spider Man 2 was AWESOME
spider man 2 was awesome
how great Spider Man 2 was

Okay, so the movie was basically "freakin' excellent." Thanks for the quick response. What else would you like to know? Google told me that Blog*Spot would rather have an iPod Mini than a Dell DJ. Also, I just learned that female rice farmers in southwestern Nepal are plowing their fields at night in the nude because I asked Daypop to tell me what people are talking about today. Turns out they're trying to please the rain god.

A Flock of Blogs?

So the next time you dash off something about your favorite local diner, offer up a two-line movie review, or simply write: "I'm going to Nepal so I can farm in the nude" in your blog and think that your voice is not as strong as it should be — think again. Not every individual post has to be a masterpiece. Does the lone bird see the cohesive beauty of the flock? It doesn't matter because this fact remains: the whole is greater than the sum of all it's parts. As a blogger, you are both an individual force and a neuron in the giant, interconnected mind that is the blogosphere. Yes, it sounds like a bad sci-fi movie, but it's all true.


Biz Stone works at Google on Blogger and writes books about blogging.
Phillip E. Pascuzzo is a designer and illustrator living in New York.

Published: Tuesday, July 06, 2004, 14:21