In November of 2000, NASA did something unusual: it asked amateurs to help it map the surface of Mars. The agency set up a Web site called Clickworkers, where people could take a short tutorial on how to classify Martian craters and then get to work clicking on photos of Mars.
NASA then aggregated all those clicks to come up with a Martian-crater map. There were two very interesting things about the results. First, although there was no financial incentive to participate, more than a hundred thousand people took part in the study, generating more than 2.4 million clicks.
Second, and even more striking, the collective product of all those amateur clickers was very good—as a report put it, their “automatically computed consensus” was “virtually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters.” At the time, Clickworkers may have looked like just an oddity. But it demonstrated, relatively early, that one of the Web’s most intriguing, and potentially most important, characteristics is its ability to harness the collective intelligence of large groups of people in order to solve problems.
It’s easy to see how the Web has transformed the way we shop, the way we consume media, and the way we communicate with one another. But it’s also begun to change the way we make decisions and even forecast the future. Attempts to tap collective intelligence on the Web come in lots of different forms. In some cases, it happens without anyone really knowing: it emerges, in effect, from choices people make for themselves.
The most obvious example of this is Google’s search engine, whose PageRank algorithm relies, to a large extent, on aggregating the links from one Web site to another. When people add links, or sometimes even when they click on them, they don’t know that they’re making Google’s search engine a little smarter, but that’s the by-product of their actions. Similarly, people use Delicious to bookmark pages (and to categorize them with labels) for their own purposes.
But, when you aggregate all those bookmarks and labels, it turns out that Delicious users are collectively producing a surprisingly useful categorization scheme for the Web.
We are better together.