Tim O’Reilly has a great post up on O’Reilly Radar, in which he talks about what might be called (although he doesn’t use the term) the “stupidity of crowds.” Using the meltdown in quantitative hedge funds, Facebook apps and Techmeme.com as examples, he talks about how too many people chasing the same idea causes a decline in the value of that idea. As he puts it:
“When a group of seemingly independent actors are making decisions based on the same limited pool of information, they become more highly correlated, and thus “stupider.”
As a couple of the commenters on Tim’s post note, this is similar to what happens in both economics and biology. When the supply of economic actors becomes limited, innovation ceases; when everyone is chasing the same few stocks or the same investing strategy, the utility of that strategy quickly declines towards zero. As Bob Warfield puts it at Smoothspan, the Web adds to this problem because it “eliminates friction and encourages herdlike behaviour.”
That will come as no surprise to anyone who has noticed the proliferation of identical Web 2.0 apps or Facebook widgets, or the explosion of identical me-too posts on Techmeme — and part of Tim’s point about Techmeme is that the “leaderboard” is only going to encourage that kind of behaviour. Ironically, of course, Tim’s post has appeared on the site, and here I am writing about it (wow, this is so “meta,” isn’t it?).
Am I writing about it because I want to move up the leaderboard? Not consciously — but that might be one of the outcomes regardless of my motivation (and I know, as I mentioned in a comment on Tim’s post, that he is secretly enraged at the fact that I am higher on the leaderboard than him, and his post is really a clever strategic move designed to improve his position).
But does that make Techmeme bad? Gabe argues in Tim’s comments that it doesn’t, and I would tend to agree. As he puts it:
“I think there is a self-reinforcing effect with Techmeme, but I believe it’s (1.) overstated and (2.) as often good as bad.”
Do pile-ons occur? Obviously, they do. And do many of those posts essentially consist of a re-posted excerpt and a “what he said” kind of comment? Definitely. Every system has a certain amount of noise. But I think on balance the posts that do add something to the conversation — and there are many of them on the average day — bring enough value to make it worthwhile.
Take Tim’s post itself (more meta): the sub-links included Bob Warfield’s post, which I thought had lots of value, as well as an excellent one from Alexander van Elsas, who I hadn’t come across before. And in many cases — as Alexander points out in his post — I find even further interesting blogs and points of view in the comments section of the blogs that appear as sub-links.
Those kinds of value are very difficult to quantify, but they do exist. It’s a chaotic system, in some ways, like biology or the stock market. But on balance, systems like Techmeme help to bring value to the surface, if you are prepared to look for it.
Tim has posted a follow-up to his original post, in which he argues that regardless of Techmeme’s utility, the larger point he was trying to make is that if everyone is looking in the same place then they will ultimately find the same kinds of things — and that he prefers to look where others aren’t, in order to find out what might be coming next.
That’s a fair point — and worth thinking about. And what does Tim think is coming next? Using trends in financial markets as a guide, he says that he thinks there might be a backlash of sorts to the openness of Web 2.0, and a corresponding focus on keeping some data private or proprietary. An interesting thought.
Jeremiah Owyang has some thoughts about Techmeme and how it encourages the dogpile effect, and so does Frederic at The Last Podcast, while Nick Carr says the leaderboard encourages what he calls social media “inbreeding.”