Scaling is a big challenge for Collective Intelligence

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Crecimiento_escaladoIt seems quite clear that the new “collaborative economy” is a good example of how advances in Collective Intelligence can add a lot of value through mechanisms like “collective filtering” attenuating the impact of “the Paradox of Choice”. The Basque consultant Julen Iturbe explains it very well in a blog post: As collaborative products and services eliminate scarcity of professional services and can be provided by anyone with a resource (a room at home, a seat in the car…) to spare, we face a hitherto unknown problem: “the offer can overwhelm our capacity to deal with it”, and this is when we really have to talk about getting attention.

I don’t think that these initiatives will die being over bloated and hypertrophic as Julen suggests. This will not happen because abundance automatically tends to create its own selection mechanisms. New P2P intermediaries like Airbnb know this very well. Indeed their differentiation efforts are now centered on two aspects: 1) recruitment, 2) filtering.

However overwhelming the offer, there will always be a way to get on to the “front page” without being dragged down by Schwartz’s paradox. I am a frequent client of Airbnb and my choices are based on the comments of people that have stayed in the rooms I am checking. It may well be that this filtering mechanism is not optimal and doesn’t quite satisfy expectations, but the same is true of the offer of more traditional middlemen such as Booking or Trivago.

Obviously there is no easy solution. I believe that the challenge lies midst metadata and comment/reputation management. The problem of “attention distribution” that is created by abundance cannot be solved by shouting louder, we must improve the mechanisms that help separate the signal from the noise. But what is really interesting is that the problem of choosing a room with Airbnb in Paris is very similar to the problem of scaling as the number of members of a collective. The more people intervening in a dialogue, the greater the risk of it “overwhelming our capacity to deal with it”.

Scaling (the equivalent of abundance in the case of Airbnb) is the largest source of inefficiencies in processes of Collective Intelligence, and this is the main problem that political parties like #Podemos (a Spanish party that seeks citizen involvement) have to face. A dramatic increase in scale, as the party has become a mass phenomenon, has left the organization’s team of leaders with the dilemma of choosing one of two alternative paths:

1.- To delve further and innovate the mechanisms for participation (with its inherent risks) to reduce the “noise” of assemblies without abandoning the idea of shared leadership

2.-  To abandon participative practices in favor of more vertical (hierarchal) mechanisms, to control inefficiencies and be more agile.

Some may think that there are intermediate options, more “And” less “Or”, but the truth is that in the end, say what you will, one model is chosen over the other.

Before ending I would like to add a comment about managing the renowned “paradox of choice” in this new scenario of abundance. According to this paradox the more options available, the greater the risk of making a bad choice, or none at all because complexity leads to paralysis. This means more stress because “maybe I haven’t made the best choice” (apply this to seeking for a room amongst the thousands on offer in Paris at Airbnb).

There is no way a perfectionist can digest this tsunami of informational overload, so forget about choosing “the best” option. With so larger an offer it is practically impossible to maximize your results. If your decision “satisfies you well enough” it’s ok. Don’t bother about your decision once it’s made. I admit it’s harder when deciding which party to vote. In general elections there is much less abundance of choice, but the same amount of uncertainty. From the moment there are two equally attractive options, or at least not as bad as others, the paradox gets a grip.

Notes: This post was translated into English with the help of Peter Hodgson. The image of the post belongs to the album of Caleb Roenigk in Flickr. Read this post in Spanish (Lee este post en Español)

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