Editors vs. the Hive Mind

swarmKevin Kelly has a great post on editors vs. the hive mind. Kelly begins by explaining that as the amount of bottom-up content on the web exploded, he believed that “the need for some top-down selection and guidance would only increase in value. As the amount of content expanded, the demand for some intelligent guidance and selection would be worth a lot to some people.” He was shocked, then, “to see the Wikipedia disprove this notion, and show how well the bottom could work without any editors at all.” But, he goes on to say, “the supposed paragon of adhocracy — the Wikipedia itself — is itself far from strictly bottom-up. In fact a close inspection of Wikipedia’s process reveals that it has an elite at its center, (and that it does have an elite center is news to most). Turns out there is far more deliberate top-down design management going on than first appears. This is why Wikipedia has worked in such a short time.”

From here, Kelly begins to build an explanation of the forces at play by drawing an analogy to evolution and intelligent design. Pure hive mind systems may eventually evolve into a valuable end-state, but they do it in biological time – relative eons when compared to internet time. No one can wait that long, so enter intelligent design.

We are too much in a hurry to wait around for a pure hive mind. Our best technological systems are marked by the fact that we have introduced intelligent design into them. This is the top-down control we insert to speed and direct a system toward our goals. Every successful technological system, including Wikipedia, has design wired into it.

What’s new is only this: never before have we been able to make systems with as much “hive” in it as we have recently made with the web. Until this era, technology was primarily all control, all design. Now it can contain both design and no-design, or hive-ness. In fact, this Web 2.0 business is chiefly the first step in exploring all the ways in which we can combine design and the hive in innumerable permutations. We are tweaking the dial in hundreds of combos:

1) dumb writers, smart filters, no editors.
2) smart writers, dumb filters, no editors
3) smart editors, smart filters, no writers
…ad infinitum.

The key, then, is to find just that right combination of hive mind and intelligent design. This searching is going on everywhere now, with a great example being Citizendium‘s effort to improve upon Wikipedia.

We mostly find legacy companies tending toward an overabundance of design, while new toddler companies place an emphasis on the hive mind. Somewhere in the middle lies the right mix, but that somewhere changes over time. As the new variable in the equation, the hive mind is underestimated by most, leaving those “hive mind centric” applications to achieve real innovation and garner the strongest accolades. The problem for legacy companies is that their perception of how far the hive mind can take us is too conservative. Add that conservatism to institutional constraints on audience control and a legacy company that feels like it’s pushing the envelop is often just pulling its head out of the sand. With many bottom up applications available as examples, companies with deep expertise in editing should have an advantage over pure hive mind companies at taking some of these models and applying judicious amounts of intelligent design. The challenge, though, is one of attitude.

One thought on “Editors vs. the Hive Mind

  1. I wonder where this leaves newspapers. Newspapers have to some degree a mix already going on of hive versus editor. The hive being paid reporters and the editors, obviously, being the editors. Newspapers reluctance with expanding its borders to include true hive mindedness lies in its concern to authenticate information. While wikipedia has been cited as an example of apparent hive-mind, it has on several occasions been found with wrong or manipulated information. So newspapers concerns are dealing with the shear volume of unauthenticated information.

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