Monday, September 15, 2003

Does Groupware Imply Groupthink?

Courtesy of reader Joseph Kondel, here's a wonderful example of how software can mediate collective action to create consensus:

For those who didn't click (or if it's down, which it seems to be often), it's a little applet which displays a bunch of pixels in a rectangle. Instructions tell the user that the area ought to look like a world map. One pixel is highlighted, and a form asks if the highlighted pixel ought to be land or water. Rinse, lather, repeat, and ten thousand visits later or so, it's moved from random noise to a recognizable world map. Pretty incredible.

What's interesting about it is that there was little guidance given. The directions didn't say "North America should be over here on the upper left, and Europe in the middle..." it just said to make a map, and that's what came up. At what point did a visitor naturally fall into the emerging consensus that that particular blob was North America? Or that the Pacific Ocean would be mostly off the map? No point, and yet it happened.

Furthermore, imagine the difficulty of changing that consensus. Maybe you're a Pacific Islander, and you want to change the map to reflect the actual size of the Pacific. Too bad! Given the momentum of the consensus, it would be prohibitively difficult to move all the pixels of North America over the east, or shrink Asia, or whatever it would take. For the architecture of this application, consensus is what the old chaos mathematicians would call an attractor, and it's a powerful one.

As we build different kinds of groupware/social software, what's the role of consensus, and how powerful is it? Does software make reaching consensus easier or harder? For purely message-driven systems like email lists or USENET, consensus is much harder to reach than it would be in a real-life meeting. But once consensus is reached, breaking that consensus often brings down the flames of wrath. All of this is somehow invisibly coded in the interstices of the software architecture and human nature. Social psychologists have long described the phenomenon of "groupthink," when the opinions of a group of people quickly form consensus, making it extremely difficult for individuals to dissent, and in which the group vastly overestimates the probability that it has reached the best possible strategy. It's like a collective shared overconfidence (remind you of any Presidental administrations?). Could we architect social software that fought groupthink? Or does it just make the gravitational attraction of consensus, even flawed consensus, ever so much more irresistable?