Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959 (Lomax Collection, US Library of Congress)

  1. Supposedly, much of the Alan Lomax archive of music will eventually go online. Until then, I console myself with this tiny playlist from the album versions of his “Southern Journey” (and in particular the Fred McDowell track “What’s the Matter Now”).
  2. The New York Public Library released a stereogranimator.
  3. The experimental turk website includes a nice list of Mturk experimentation resources (via John Horton).
  4. Chris Blattman’s offered some sound recommendations on how to be a better reviewer & respondent.
  5. Henry Farrell (and many others) are taking a stand against Elsevier and you can join.

Ned Gulley (Mathworks) and Karim Lakhani (Harvard Business School) presented some forthcoming work on Collaborative Innovation today at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The paper builds on Ned’s work at Mathworks developing collaborative programming competitions for the MATLAB community. Adopting “the perspective of the code” it analyzes what happens when you set a horde of geeks loose on a fun, challenging programming problem in a networked collaborative environment.

To sum up my reactions really briefly, I thought the paper was an exciting step in the process of looking under the hood of collaborative knowledge production. Gulley and Lakhani argue that as programmers improved the performance of code relative to a discreet problem, they did so through “tweaks” and “leaps.”

“Tweaks” represent small refinements that improve the performance of existing code; “Leaps” represent more sudden and large-scale advances in performance (usually driven by introducing a more substantive or extensive change in the code).

Tweakers and Leapers benefit from each other’s work, but the biggest beneficiary of their combined interactions was the code itself. Within one week of the competitions, thousands of eyeballs had produced startling solutions to complex algorithmic problems.

There’s a lot more to be learned from this kind of work – especially from the sort of experimental data created in the setting of these sort of large-scale collaborative games. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about how programmers (whether as individuals or communities) adapted to the challenges over time. It seems like it might be possible to design a game that could test whether efficient collaborative problem solving techniques “evolved” over the course of the game(s). In addition, it would be fascinating to test the results of this kind of collaboration against those produced by more hierarchical or individuated models of innovative work.

Look for links to the soon-to-be-published version of the paper on the “publications” section of Karim’s HBS faculty page.

In the meantime, I’m told that video and audio of today’s presentation should be available on the Berkman Center’s “interactive section” by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.

Everybody and their cousin’s got a link to Duncan Watt’s recent NYTimes Magazine piece on cumulative advantage. It’s a nice bit of public sociology and an interesting application of experimental methods to understand how social networks function.

The argument also has implications for the ongoing debates about the nature of the networked public sphere. Watt’s results suggest that there may be some merit to the position of folks like U Chicago’s Cass Sunstein, who claims that big media has historically promoted civic virtues by exposing us to ideas we wouldn’t encounter by googling alone. If, as Watts says, people’s interests are over-determined by knowledge of what is popular, then search algorithms predicated on popularity (like “PageRank“) could produce a feedback mechanism that stifles diversity in public debate. To adopt Matthew Hindman’s phrase, we’d be left with “googlearchy.”

Yochai Benkler has disagreed with both of these views for a while [full disclosure: I currently work as a research assistant for Benkler], in part because they both idealize the state of public discourse prior to the creation of the Internet. Watt’s data could just as easily be turned around to make the claim that traditional print media and television – much like the recording industry – were giving us a false impression of popularity (or importance) that only reflected the prejudices of a handful of editors and industry executives. By disseminating these perspectives widely, the big media therefore imposed an elitist politics and outlook on the public as a whole.

I’ll have to do some more thinking and reading to figure out where I fall on this issue – but for the moment, studies like Watts’ shed important light on the complex nature of social networks and reputation on the role of information in society.

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