In search of micro-elites: how to get user-generated content

The excitement of modern collaborative environments (call it Web 2.0
or what you will) lies in the hope of bringing the masses on board to
create something collectively. Hundreds of thousands, it is thought,
can be not only consumers but producers. But more often than you’d
think, what you need is not hundreds of thousands, but just five or
ten people who know best.

This is often true in my own field of computer documentation (which
I’ve researched and
written about
for some years). A new, bright, shiny tech toy comes out and you want
to bootstrap people’s use of it–but the documentation doesn’t exist,
or is embryonic and hard to decipher. Where do you turn? Probably only
half a dozen people in the world understand the library or utility,
and many of them are too close to the guts of it, having worked on it,
to explain it clearly. Unless you find that rare person who knows the
technology intimately, can empathize with users, and can take time off
from what is certain to be a busy career in order to write, there’s
little hope.

The idea of micro-elites actually came to me when looking at the
Peer to Patent
project. There are currently 1611 signed-up contributors searching for
prior art on patent applications. But you don’t want 1611 people
examining each patent. You want the 20 people who understand the
subject deeply and intimately. A different 20 people on each patent
adds up to 1611 (and hopefully the project will continue, and grow to
a hundred or a thousands times that number).

Even Wikipedia follows this rule in some cases. There are some
subjects where everybody in the world holds an opinion and a huge
number actually know some facts. But other subjects would never see
articles unless a couple of the few dozen experts in the world took
time to write it.

A corollary of the micro-elite principle is that one of the best ways
to help a project requiring a micro-elite is to find the right
contributors and persuade them to help out. We should also examine the
rewards that such projects offer to see whether they offer enough
incentives to draw the micro-elite. The key prerequisite for good
writing is good writers.

  • A large concern over gathering information and data is validation of the data’s credibility and integrity. That would include the input and addition of data and being able to segregate opinion from more factual content.

  • I like this term, “micro-elite”. But is it something that can really only apply to technical fields? I can easily imagine that the question of who is truly an expert in, say, a particular subfield of political history might get more controversial the more you look at it. Whereas it’s not controversial (among anyone we’d consider reasonable) to allege that Linus Torvalds is an expert in operating systems.

  • I think, this is true. The main problem is where to find the “micro-elite” – and to convince them to do the work for you.

  • The basic ‘wise crowd’ problem is that the aggregation method must reduce the noise in the system to a managable level.

    On the one hand there’s technical projects where incompetent submissions are stopped at the compiler. Identifying the ‘micro-elite’ is pretty easy.

    On the other hand there are political projects where nothing reduces the noise. The self-appointed experts come out of the woodwork and the noise level overwhelms the system.

    So the question is – how do you design a ‘wise crowd’ where the system filters the noise with the minimum of human intervention.

    A ‘designer crowd’ if you will.