This is the fifth in a short series of posts on a great new book by Howard Rheingold: “Net Smart”. I recommended you find time to read this fascinating volume yourself (see link below) but if you can’t find the time, these posts summarise the main themes: this week: Social Digital Know-How.

The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence

Rheingold’s breadth of knowledge combined with a gift of explaining complex concepts lucidly is one of the things that makes him so readable.

In this section, he draws on new theories in evolutionary anthropology, biology and economics to argue that human beings have succeeded as a species because of their ability to co-operate.

He uses this as a springboard to look at the new phenomenon of mass collaboration online.

When ideas have sex

Previously, Rheingold explored how the very acts of blogging, curating or tweeting helped contribute to the Web’s collective intelligence – covered in last week’s post.

Now he draws on the work of Matt Ridley (@mattwridley) to illustrate how we can all collaborate on projects that are beyond our individual understanding:

“Co-operation turned us into specialists: I’ll do this job, you do that one. Specialisation gave us incentives to innovate. Innovation led to yet more specialisation – and more ways of combining different specialised skills. Human intelligence became collective and cumulative to an extent that no other species can rival.”

Rheingold then looks at a diverse range of ways in which the Web allows us to harness these collaborative instincts, including:

  • To create open source software (such as Linux & Firefox)
  • To create, maintain and continuously improve our collective knowledge (Wikipedia)
  • To develop and fund new products and companies (Crowdsourcing)
  • To gather and report news (Twitter, Storify etc.)
  • To organise disaster relief (Crisis Mapping and response)
My favourite illustration of the power of mass online collaboration was when the @Guardian released hundreds of thousands of  MPs’ expenses receipts online. Parliament had published the receipts in response to public outrage but in a form that no-one could make sense of. Within four days, 20,000 citizens had investigated 170,000 receipts, revealing the extent to which our elected representatives had funded second homes, Duck Houses and flat screen TVs.

Rheingold goes on to a fascinating discussion of how social media is the 21st century equivalent of primates’ mutual grooming rituals.



A radical new way of engaging the public

Rheingold undertakes an extensive analysis of the way that Wikipedia had to change its way of operating to encourage participation.

It is so easy to create or edit a Wiki page that hundreds of thousands of people contribute.

Making it easy to edit, also makes it easy to damage. However, this has given rise to a huge group of volunteers who “patrol recent changes”. Since, in most cases, there are many more people committed to truth and accuracy, the system actually becomes more robust despite its paradoxical vulnerability.

This approach is being taken in exciting new directions with both the New Zealand national government and Melbourne City Council using the Wiki approach to engage local citizens in drafting new laws.

This form of collaborative governance could be a powerful way of overcoming political apathy.

Key principles

Another attraction of NetSmart for me is that Rheingold always translates overarching theories into practical ways of operating online.

Here’s his four key tools for collaborating online:

1. Know the territory

Spend time observing and getting to know a virtual community first. Ask questions discreetly to key individuals, rather than just broadcasting your initial questions to everyone.

2. Assume goodwill

Online communication can be tricky to interpret, without facial expressions and body language, some comments may seem to be more negative or aggressive than they are intended. Building a community in which all can collaborate is easier if you assume goodwill (if the person turns out to be a troll or sociopath, you can always decline to co-operate later).

3. Jump in whenever you can add value

It doesn’t matter what your strengths and interests are – whether you want to start an ambitious new project or merely edit the punctuation. Don’t stand on the sidelines, jump in and contribute.

4. Reciprocate

When someone does you a favour or shows you a courtesy: reciprocate.

If you are new to a community, reciprocate in advance – “pay it forward”.

Readers who Tweet will know that this sort of proactive consideration abounds on Twitter and is what makes it such an attractive pastime for many of us.


If you are interested in new ways of developing social policy, you might like to follow @guerillapolicy or read their blog.


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