Category Archives: Web 2.0

The Madness of Mobs: Twitter and Swine Flu

In talking about web 2.0, we often think about ideas like mass collaboration, a participatory web, the web as a communication platform, and generally speaking The Wisdom of Crowds in building and establishing knowledge.

I’m a big believer in the power of functional (or wise) groups to make better decisions than even the most talented individuals. I learned this first-hand years ago when I took LDP at the Center for Creative Leadership and we did a survival exercise similar to the one detailed in table 4 of this document. In our exercise, every individual — including a Brigadier General — was outperformed by the group in prioritizing a list of items necessary for wildnerness survival.

So I believe that groups guess jellybean jar counts better than individuals, that PageRank generally works for finding web pages, that feedback (used to) work on eBay (until they said sellers can only say positive things), that Diggs are useful way to identify interesting content, that Wikipedia is a great way to build an encyclopedia (particularly a technology one), and generally most of the other stuff I’m supposed to believe as good, web 2.0, Silicon Valley guy.

I believe this so much that we invited James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, to keynote our user conference coming soon on May 12-14, 2009. So I’m on board with the program.

But I also wonder about the opposite, what I’ll call The Madness of Mobs. From financial bubbles to looters to Spring Breakers to a dozen other examples, we can all find examples of where everything cuts exactly the opposite way: where a wise crowd transforms to a mad mob.

So I was quite interested to find this article, Swine Flu: Twitter’s Power to Misinform, which talks precisely about how the “mass brain” of Twitter appears to be shorting out when it comes to the topic of swine flu. Excerpt (edited for brevity, and bolding mine):

Thus, Unlike basic internet search — which has been already been used by Google to track flu trends — Twitter has introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn, too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one’s friends do, or simply gain more popularity.

In such situations this, there is some pathological about people wanting to post yet another status update containing the coveted most-searched words – only for the sake of gaining more people to follow them. And yet the bottom line is that tracking the frequency of Twitter mentions of swine flu as a means of predicting anything thus becomes useless. (However, there are plenty of non-Twitter options summed up nicely on Mashable)

Hum. I should probably cop a maybe-guilty plea on blogging on swine flu. Like moths to a flame, we bloggers are drawn to hot topics.

The article continues:

If you think that my concerns about context are overblown, here are just a few status updates from random Twitter users:

I’m concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare?

In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town….SWINE FLU = DANGER

Good grief this swine flu thing is getting serious. 8/9 specimens tested were prelim positive in NYC. so that’s Tx, Mexico and now Nyc.

Be careful of the swine flu!!!! (may lead to global epidemic) Outbreak in Mexico. 62 deaths so far!! Don’t eat pork from Mexico!!

Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people….beef and chicken have always been meats of choice

Be careful…Swine Flu is not only in Mexico now. 8 cases in the States. Pig = Don’t eat

If my reading list on Twitter was only restricted to the individuals who had produced the posts above, by now I would be extremely scared … In moments like this, one is tempted to lament the death of broadcasting, for it seems that the information from expert sources should probably be prioritized over everything else.

Now, I’m pretty sure the counter-arguments to The Madness of Mobs goes like this:

  • Not all groups are wise. The Wisdom of Crowds relies of wise groups.
  • You can’t cherry-pick the scariest contributions to argue that The Wisdom of Crowds doesn’t work. Much as the abortion page on Wikipedia is the result of a rugby scrum of passionate, oppositional forces, so will be the mass brain of Twitter on swine flu. You need to look at the whole picture.

In fact, Surowiecki outlines failures of crowd intelligence and finds root causes which include groups that are too homogeneous, too emotional, too centralized, too divided, and too imitative.

Hopefully, we’ll hear more from Jim on this topic at the user conference and, in the meantime, before enslaving yourself to The Wisdom of Crowds, ponder if your crowd is a wise one, and whether you’re actually dealing with The Madness of Mobs.

Related Information / Stories

Swine Flu Tracker Map

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

Mary Meeker Web 2.0 Summit Presentation

While I was unable to attend this year’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco (due to our own Digital Publishing Summit in NYC), one of my most-viewed posts from last year was about Morgan Stanley financial analyst Mary Meeker’s statistics-loaded presentation.

Here’s this year’s version of her speech. My favorite slide is #15, which does a simple least-squares regression of GDP growth vs. ad spending growth. For more commentary, see this post on Silicon Alley Insider or see this post on the ReadWriteWeb.

Web 2.Over?

I heard this soundbite today (pronounced “web two dot over”) as Silicon Valley’s response to the crisis in the financial markets, declining consumer spending, and the imminent recession.

In many ways, I think it’s true.

  • Many of the previously-unconstrained-by-revenue web 2.0 startups are in for a reality check.

However, in many ways, I think the Web 2.0ver assertion is not true at all. In fact, it almost misses the point. While a swarm of eyeball-catching, oddly-named, twenty-something-led startups may get obliterated, that wasn’t the point of web 2.0 (outside venture circles, at least). To me, web 2.0 was, is, and will remain, an important collection of concepts that will endure:

  • A read/write web, where we can participate, update, annotate, comment, link, tag, etc
  • A social web, where there is awareness of relationships that can be leveraged appropriately
  • User-generated content, which is here to stay and, in fact, always has been (think: radio call-in shows, Kids Say the Darndest Things, or America’s Funniest Home Videos)
  • The use of the web for communication and entertainment. People are natural communicators. We will always adapt our tools to that fundamental need.
  • A personalized web, that understands what we like and how we like to get it

These concepts — and others — came with web 2.0, and perhaps despite the illness of the hosts who brought them, they are most certainly not web 2.0ver.

Startup Zeitgeist

Seedcamp, a London-based, week-long camp for European entrepreneurs recently did an interesting exercise. They took the several hundred applications they received for their event and made tagclouds. Here’s what they found.

What are you creating?


How will you make money?


What tools will you use?

(I’d love to see XQuery in the toolset, but happy to see that database, server, and XML are already there.)

And who says you can’t do interesting analytics on content? I thought this was fascinating. Check out Seedcamp’s blog post about the exercise, here.

Tim 1.0 on Web 3.0 (The Semantic Web)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who I now call Tim 1.0, as opposed to Tim 2.0 (O’Reilly), recently did an interesting one-hour interview with Paul Miller of Talis on their Nodalities blog.

You can listen to the interview here. Because the sound quality isn’t great, I suggest listening to the interview while reading along with the full transcript here.

To me the themes remain the same:

  • It’s about a machine processable web as opposed to simply a human readable one
  • It’s about structuring data from pages so it can be used by programs
  • It’s then about integrating data from across multiple sites and/or inferencing across information from one or more sites
  • He’s a big believer that people should publish information (e.g., a catalog) in both HTML format for human viewing and RDF format for machine processing
  • RDF is all about triples, which go something like: object-1 property object-2 (e.g., Dave is-brother-of Fred, Dave is-son-of Judy).
  • Creating new knowledge then involves inferencing using these triples (e.g., knowing the two triples above you can induce that Fred is-son-of Judy)

Note that the whole “social graph” captured by Facebook or LinkedIn could easily be dynamically recreated if everyone had some universal profile that listed a bunch of friend-of-a-friend triples (Dave is-a-friend-of Tim, Dave is-a-friend-of Joe, …)