How to tap the collective before we’re Borg

If you had to choose the biggest ineffiency in the world, what would it be?

My current vote would be the poor distribution of arguably our most valuable resource: our experience.

Think of any decision you have to make soon, crucial or trivial, and there are hundreds of millions of people that have already made it. Every second, someone somewhere is choosing a soft drink, a TV show, a car, a profession, a spouse. Yet, their knowledge and opinions are mostly locked up in their heads, languishing unused and depreciating into hazy memory.

The idea of aggregating and sharing this collective intelligence is a staple of sci-fi. Futurists have long salivated at the idea of networking our individual brains into a massive neural net. Of course, neuroscience will need a bit more time to work out the kinks.

Is there a good solution in the meantime? The internet is the best yet, but most efforts to aggregate knowledge – the current buzzword is “wisdom of crowds” – have been mediocre:

Epinions: users write reviews and used to be paid for every read, but the system was gamed too much. Now there is little incentive to contribute and the content is stagnant.

Yelp: an Epinions-like site within a social network (founded by former PayPal colleagues) where users get recommendations from friends. There’s extra value in reviews from trusted sources but sadly there isn’t much content yet – most of my queries returned few reviews.

They face a double barrier: getting people to sign-up and invite friends, then getting friends to write reviews. I thought there would be a synergy there, that users would be more likely to write reviews for friends, but it so far hasn’t spurred the growth I expected. Bessemmer Ventures is still bullish.

Wikipedia: the most successful knowledge-sharing site to date. Any user can contribute and moderators control quality. However, the site is more knowledge than opinions and not geared toward buying decisions.

Why is there no solid opinion aggregator? I think no site has yet done the following:

Make feedback frictionless: it’s still too much of a pain to share opinions. Users of Epinions have to visit the site, begin rating with four text fields, sign-up with another four fields, choose two more radio buttons, then preview comments – that’s five pages and twelve decisions for one little opinion. Yelp requires even more: seven pages and seventeen decisions before I stopped counting. This causes sites to overrepresent extreme opinions that skew the results – especially negatively – because those users are willing to endure the friction.

A better model would be eBay’s simple numeric system (+1 / 0 / -1) or Netflix’s one-click star system (though both still require sign-up). This reduces the system’s precision and depth, but I think the volume of opinions grow enough to justify that.

[Ed: As Chris Law writes in a comment, truly frictionless feedback would mean no change in behavior from users; feedback could be gleaned implicitly. He cites Amazon’s recommendations as an example but those are more targeted cross-selling than feedback; they are based on sales before feedback is possible (i.e. “here’s what others bought” vs. “here’s what others enjoyed)”. His company, Aggregated Knowledge, may be on to something.]

Allow time-of-trial ratings: users should be able to share opinions when they are freshest and this is often soon after a trial experience (though this may taint objectivity, especially on something complex or emotional like a car). Otherwise, opinions can be cloudy or tainted by third parties.

Kaiser Permanente gets it right with their Opinionmeter feedback kiosks. The kiosks are placed near the exits, ask two simple questions, and use an intuitive button interface.

Of course kiosks aren’t always practical. One fantastical alternative would be a credit card that allows a buyer to change the last digit at the point-of-sale to rate the purchase – e.g. 1234 1234 1234 123X, where X could be a numeric rating (1-5). This would require some safeguards to protect privacy and prevent merchant tampering, but if feasible, the system could easily aggregate a massive amount of opinions, deliver them for free to consumers, and earn nicely scalable revenue by charging businesses for advertising or in-depth consumer feedback. Of course, this system would only work for products and services tried before purchase, like restaurants.

Give compelling incentive: Epinions used to pay opinion writers by page view, but the system was gamed (I wonder if some anti-fraud PayPal folks could create a more foolproof solution). Yelp offers the fuzzy reward of helping friends, but I don’t think that’s enough. Marketing contests that reward a few users or points programs that reward heavy users may help, but an ideal solution would incentivize every opinion, especially useful ones. What if every positive review gave a 10% discount on another product from the same company, while a negative review did the same for a competing product?

These are not easy problems, but markets less juicy and more complex than aggregating opinions have been tapped. Why has this problem gone unsolved so long?

P.S. For a solid feedback system, check out Slashdot’s comment moderation. The interface could be better but the concepts are well thought-out.

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