Who owns the wisdom of the crowd? The crowd.

There are lots of issues unsettled around who owns what in our new online world where our whole is worth a heckuva lot more than the sum of our parts.

Who owns my actions and attention and trust… but me? Who owns the wisdom of the crowd… but the crowd? And what about those who enable the crowd to be so smart… what do they own?

And is “own” the right verb? Or is it “control?” Or is it all just “sharing?”

This is inspired by Fred Wilson’s and Brad Burnham’s event about peer production and also by my hissyfit about my Yahoo account, below. I’ll try to come down to earth from the former and rise up from the snarkiness of the latter and discuss this on three levels: the individuals, the collectives, and the enablers.

Before I start, it’s important to say that lots of people are way ahead of me here: Seth Goldstein, Marc Canter, Steve Gillmor, Mary Hodder, and many more.

On the individual level, I want to own or control my stuff, don’t you? That is a given that too many companies and institutions forget. Thus my first law of media and life: Give us control and we will use it. The corollary: Don’t give us control and you will lose us.

So I want to control the things I create: my content (this blog); my identity (my addresses); my collections of neat things (my bookmarks); my analysis (my tags); my reputation (my eBay rating), my behavior (my history, my clicks). What does control mean? I want to be assured that somebody else can’t muck with or kill it. I want to be able to use it wherever I want — and that means I need it to be portable.

I also want to control the things I consume: my content (obviously, I pick the sites, shows, words I take in); my advertising (I’d like transparent targeting… and so should advertisers, because it would be a helluva lot more effective).

Other players may try to get in the way — keeping me from my stuff, or pushing me to this page instead of that, or showing me this ad because they get paid to do so — but, again, if I ruled my world, this is what I’d want. Less interference means less friction means less inefficiency means greater value… for everybody.

That is a hard lesson for companies and institutions built on centralized control to learn. But it is a lesson of our new economic order.

Now to the collective: The thing that’s new about this new world is that we don’t just consume. In fact, the act of consumption is now an act of creation. There are so many examples. When I search on Google, I am finding stuff for me but when I click, I am adding to the wisdom of the crowd that makes Google more effective for every searcher who follows me. When I create my iTunes playlist I am also programming my personal iTunes radio station, which I can share; that’s still individual. But when my listening habits join in at LastFM, I’ve now contributed to a collective and that collective pays me back with recommendations (hear Fred on this). When I consume content and want to save it on Del.icio.us or other such services, that’s an individual act. But the tags we create together yield amazing wisdom of the crowd that can be useful in helping people discover content, in organizing the web around topics again, in improving search results, and even in improving ad performance. See also Tagyu, which takes the tagging, categorizing, organizing wisdom of the crowd to tag and organize other content. There’s a lot of value there.

So who owns that collected wisdom of the crowd? I’d say the crowd does. Others merely borrow it if they continue to have the trust of the crowd and if they pay dividends back to that crowd. And if those others try too hard to control that wisdom, to limit its use and the sharing of it, then they not only reduce the value of it — under the theory (and it’s still a theory) that a smaller crowd is less wise — but they also risk turning away the crowd that creates this value. Here’s Om Malik on this very point:

I wondered out loud, if this culture of participation was seemingly help[ing] build businesses on our collective backs. So if we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time.

I don’t think it’s our time we’re contributing but, indeed, our wisdom: the way we think, the way we look at the world: That’s what’s really valuable, for it allows others to speak directly to us in our own language. Om continues:

We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!

Well, but we all get a better search engine in Google thanks to Google collecting our wisdom, no? Google then creates value on top of that in the form of highly targeted advertising and we don’t share in that. In other words, besides getting better searches, do we and should we also get money? Attention Trust would say that we should get value from our attention (though I’ll admit I still haven’t fully figured out their gospel). More Om:

Take Skype as an example – it rides on our broadband pipes, for which we a hefty monthly charge. It uses our computers and pipes to replace a network that cost phone companies billions to build. In exchange we can make free phone calls to other Skype users. I have no problems with that. I had no problems with Skype charging me for SkypeIN and SkypeOUT calls as well, for this was only a premium service only to be used if and when needed.

However, now that it is part of eBay, I do cringe a little….

It’s still just economics: an exchange of value. But the value now comes in many forms, not just money.

Which brings us to the enablers: Google, Del.icio.us, Yahoo, eBay, LastFM, iTunes, CraigsList, Wikipedia, Skype, Technorati, PubSub, IceRocket, and on and on. This is the peer production we explored at the Union Square event (and if you dare, you can read the whole transcript here.) I learned a lot at that session and it’s only now sinking in.

The question is: What do the enablers deserve for enabling? And what do we as individuals and as members of the collective deserve for creating the wisdom? What do we owe each other in this exchange of value?

Or the real question is: How do we not screw this up?

There are so many ways we can screw it up. Spam, hate, stupidity, and control can do that. But if everyone behaves the right way, then we create great whole larger than the sums of their parts; every capitalized entity above proves that. But we’re still trying to figure out what the rules are, what “the right way” means.

The truth is that we’re doing nothing less than creating a new society and we’re still figuring out what the rules and economies of that society are.

As Yale’s scary smart Yochai Benkler said at the Union Square event:

A whole set of other behaviors that have grown up in the household, in friendships, in communities, the motivations that they capture, the signals that get people to explain what it is that they desire, how they desire, what they want to do, what they’re trying to do, all of these things are suddenly becoming integrated into the core economic activities of the most advanced economists, and all of the players inside of these economies need to begin to think. It’s a new set of social competition. It’s a new set of opportunities. It’s a new solution space for ways to solve production problems. And we need to start learning how to live with, use, provide platforms for, use the outputs of without undermining this new set of social cultural practices.

In short: Life is being integrated into the economies of developed nations. It’s nothing less than that.

Some more lessons from that day:

Tom Evslin said that we are proving to have a build in “urge to cooperate:”

Anthropologically we have a much greater urge to cooperate and to do cooperative things than we knew that we had as a species. [For example] the help forums that grow up around every possible service where there’s a bunch of volunteers basically providing export because they want to. I think what happened is is that we assumed that people only did things that they got paid for doing…

But, again, we get paid in other ways: In getting knowledge back, in knowing we are building something together, in feeling a sense of empowerment and ownership, in just feeling good.

Evslin also said that if you’re going to try to build a large network — a community, collective, society, whatever you want to call it — on top of this phenomenon and using the infrastructure that technology now permits, then you’re best off building the largest network possible first without regard to profit, which will limit yourself and thus limit the network you are building.

I think lesson one is don’t try to build a business and network at the same time….

Let’s forget Reed’s Law for a moment because Metcalf’s Law is steep enough, that everyone knows that Metcalf’s Law says use networks that increase value, and everybody forgets the converse, which is small networks have no value. And so what value is there to the first few users in joining a small network. Almost none. And so you can’t extract anything in return. You can’t put friction in the way of people joining a small network. You have to make it incredibly attractive and easy. That’s the secret of Skype’s success. They only had distribution experience. Then they used that, and they didn’t introduced Skype in and Skype out because it would have been a distraction until they reached critical network mass.

So if you build openly to build as big and as fast as possible, then you’ll be in the best position to figure out where the value for you is. (And, yes, that sounds like Bubble 1.0 but the difference now is that you can build with less investment; you can build as so many of the companies listed in this post have, with very little.) So… Google built a collective search engine to build an ad company. Skype built a collective phone company to sell to a commerce company. Others (I’d list Technorati, Del.icio.us, and Craig’s List here) are still trying to figure this out.

Tim O’Reilly talked about the empowerers and how they succeed under the Evslin model by not trying to hold onto too much as you build:

A defining characteristic seems to be how much is the value of the system you try to capture. You know, if you look at something like Ebay or Google, even though they’re very, very successful companies, they’re actually pretty generous in creating value for people outside the company, and you know, versus say if you look at sort of the traditional walled garden kind of company, there’s really not that opportunity for creating value. You know, Pierre likes to point out how many people make a living on Ebay and how the social goal of getting people to trust each other is intrinsic to the value of the system at creating an economic opportunity for people.

To which Mark Pincus replied that eBay created a wall around its reputation system, not allowing people to export and use their trust ratings, and that’s screwing it up.

There was much discussion about the point at which things do get screwed up: Somebody grows by being open. Then they want to stay on top so they exert control (getting greedy about trying to keep you in or about money or information). When they exert too much control, then competitors can gang up by being more open (regaining the advantage that made the big guy big) or the public the big guy serves can desert.

All of which is to say that there are values that must be shared to succeed. But we’re still not sure what those values are; we’re still scribbling down Hammurabi’s Code. Once again, we are building a new society here.

I believe we start with the notions that:
* We all want to control our contributions.
* We all want the community to benefit if we in turn benefit.
* We expect mutual trust in the forms of transparency and honesty
* And we all — individual, collective, enabler — find uncivil behavior (spam, fraud, hate) unacceptable.

But there’s one more fundamental notion that informs this new society, a notion that big companies and institutions invariably forget because they were build in the old order:

This is no longer a centralized world, a world controlled by those institutions. This is a decentralized world, a world controlled by us.

And if you try to take control away from us, you will lose. It used to be that you could take control away from us and we had nowhere to go. But in this post-scarcity world, we can always go somewhere else for content or information or service. There’s always another news story, always another email service, always another search engine. Thus my first law, once again: Give us control and we will use it. Don’t and you will lose us.