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Photosynth and the Wisdom of Crowds

February 19, 2009

One of the basic tenets of the “Social Networking – Web 2.0 – Community” movement is that crowds are smarter than individuals. While there is ample evidence to support this:

  • 60% increase in productivity at Proctor and Gamble from crowdsourcing
  • 91% success rate of the audience in Who Wants to be a Millionaire
  • The success of stock market indexes versus individual portfolio managers etc… etc… etc….

 …it’s still sometimes hard for people outside the Web 2.0 industry to understand how the collective intelligence of non-experts could outweigh the accumulated and business-validated knowledge of internal, company experts. Partly this is simply an issue of rethinking the traditional business model itself. Today’s business model is still largely based on a scarcity model and the accompanying economic paradigm of supply and demand. Like many institutions, businesses have been slow to adapt to macro-level changes in culture and technology. Just as the US military is equipped and trained to fight the last war instead of the next one, so too is the institution of business still training and promoting managers based on the last great bastions of success, specifically a “goods-based” business paradigm.
What has replaced the scarcity paradigm is a catalyst paradigm. In a “goods-based economy,” you and I cannot both possess the same physical object. In a knowledge economy, not only can we possess the same knowledge and electronic assets, we can add to that knowledge through discussion and collaboration in ways that aren’t possible with physical objects. Google Map mashups are a great example of this. Yahoo Pipes applications are another. Today, it’s possible to rapidly create something new by combining existing digital assets and human interactions in imaginative ways. This is why I refer to this as a catalyst paradigm. One definition of a catalyst is “A substance that changes the speed or yield of a chemical reaction without being consumed or chemically changed by the chemical reaction.” One of the defining characteristics of this emerging economy is the ability to bring greater value to existing assets through remixes or through the addition of community and collaboration. It’s not about knowledge or even experts; it’s about wisdom and the interconnections that come with context. What’s different now is that advantage is gained through the sharing and interplay of knowledge or ideas, not just through the ideas themselves.
There are numerous examples of this new paradigm at work – Microsoft vs Google, Barnes and Noble vs Amazon, Mapquest vs Google Maps. Microsoft creates things, specifically applications; Google built its strength on understanding interrelationships: between websites, between creators of documents, between content and ads, etc… Barnes and Noble sells the same books that Amazon does, but Amazon extended the “book” with user-generated data. Now, I can move beyond the book itself to a meta-discourse on its perceived value and relationship to other books. I can derive value from other people’s interaction with the book and related books, and I can add my own experience to a collective valuation and context. Mapquest and Google Maps are both tools to generate maps, but only one of these enables me to extend the map data through integration with other data sources, what is generally referred to as a “mashup.” Google, Amazon, and Google Maps are all compelling examples of a catalyst paradigm at work. And in all cases, the catalysts are the interplay, the value of human interactions, and context.
While these examples are all very powerful, perhaps the most compelling argument for this catalyst model is, somewhat ironically, a new piece of photo software from Microsoft: Photosynth. At one level, Photosynth is “just” a really amazing piece of photo presentation software. Really amazing, but still just another way to look at images. At another level however, Photosynth is perhaps one of the most concrete and powerful realizations of the catalyst paradigm. Essentially what PhotoSynth does is scan public domain picture sites, such as Flickr, to create composite 3d images of various real world places. By scanning disparate pictures of the same place, it can piece together the interrelationships between the pictures, the distance and angle from which each individual shot was taken, and generate not only a 3d representation of the real world object, but a contextual map of the pictures as well (which element of the composite came from what individual picture(s)). I’m not sure I have ever seen a more compelling case for the catalyst paradigm or better proof of the adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Here is a link to a demonstration of Photosynth at TED:
So when next confronted with a skeptic who doesn’t “get it” or a newbie who is trying to understand how a large collection of regular Joes could generate more value than a smaller pool of recognized experts, show them the Photosynth video. Talk to them about how Google rose to prominence by mining user-generated data from links or how Amazon extended the sale of physical objects to include collective valuations and context. And if that doesn’t work, just wait a few months and take them to a few of your competitor’s sites so they can see what they should have done…

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