The 'wisdom of crowds' loses steam

The gurus said that the community would change the way the industry develops and sells software. The gurus were wrong.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That popular aphorism never seemed truer than today when reading The Wall Street Journal's analysis of Wikipedia's declining volunteer base. Despite countless articles extolling the virtues and seeming omnipotence of "community" over the past several years, the technology industry seems to be settling back into old habits:

Command and control.

It's not that the "wisdom of crowds" idea hasn't influenced the way technology is developed, or how news and information are gathered and distributed. It has.

It's just that the promised sea change has proved to be far less disruptive than we expected.

Take Wikipedia. As the Journal calls out, volunteerism has declined as the ease of contribution has waned. The easy topics are taken. Rules for upping the quality have proliferated. Wikipedia is becoming...corporate.

Nick Carr has been pointing this out for years, but it's only now becoming self-evident. Wikipedia has grown up and, in so doing, is looking more and more like the encyclopedic world it sought to displace.

Nor is it alone. Open-source business models increasingly look like proprietary software models, as the Software Freedom Law Center's Bradley Kuhn suggests.

Even uber successful open-source communities like Joomla have discovered that reliance on volunteers falls short of what a few good paid developers can do.

That's a positive discovery by Joomla. A more worrisome discovery is that Mozilla remains far too dependent on Google to fund development of Firefox. Mozilla has lots of community, right? Yes. As Mozilla CEO John Lilly has said, 40 percent of Firefox's code comes from developers not employed by the foundation.

But that still leaves 60 percent, and virtually all of the core development work, that relies on "company," not "community," which is how much of the world's best open-source software is developed: funded by IBM and other "community" members.

For those who think "community" is a euphemism for "everyone else doing my work for me," think again. It just doesn't work that way.

Of course, companies can go to the opposite extreme, too. Apple, for one, gets beat up for a heavy-handed approach to its App Store approval process. Apple, in other words, doesn't seem to care one iota what "the community" thinks.

But then, this is the same App Store with more than 100,000 applications and 2 billion downloads to date. No wonder Apple isn't apologizing: it's clearly benefiting most people most of the time, or the application developers would take their complaints to a different platform.

But they haven't, and this calls out the problem with deifying "community." It's accepted wisdom that one shouldn't "anger the community," as if it's some unknown god that demands the occasional virgin to be thrown into the volcano. But the truth is, "community" is not really much different from the "customers" and "partners" the industry has sought to satisfy for decades.

So, yes, by all means seek to work with your community of users and partners, but don't expect "the community" to do your work for you. Guess what? "The community" already has a day job, and can't afford to work full-time for you unless you pay it.

All of which leaves us largely where we started. The most successful software companies don't rely on some vague "community" to build their products. Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Google (Android, anyone?), and even, increasingly, Red Hat (JBoss, KVM, etc.) build great software based on their own, internal plans and expertise and "the community" buys it (or resells/embeds/etc. it).

The big shift, however, has been in the transparency of the feedback loop, which has been a welcome change in the industry. So, to the extent that "community" simply implies a more open way of developing and distributing software, then, yes, it has been significant.

But it hasn't changed the world. It has only changed the way the dominant technology companies...dominate.