Saturday, 31 January 2009


When thinking about incentivizing online participation its rare that the name of John Maynard Keynes, the Economist, is raised in conversation alongside that of Simon Cowell of American Idol and X-Factor fame. Simon Cowell wasn't the first to do it, but he has taken the idea of a popular vote in a talent contest to a new level, and with the assistance of his panel, who act as 'advisor' to the voters, he has devised a winning formula.

However, this approach does not always work for all those involved. In the UK recently, Strictly Come Dancing, a TV dance contest, created huge public controversy because the panel wanted a political reporter (pictured above) with two-left feet voted out, whilst a sympathetic voting public wanted him to stay in.

This advisory panel plus popular vote model doesn't always work on TV, and presents serious problems for online. People cheat online and it is not always the best entrants that win. As social participation becomes more important the mechanics by which these games are governed becomes more importanat. Site's such as Digg have had to change because of the wrong mechanics:

It has been reported that the top 100 Digg users controlled 56% of Digg's frontpage content, and that a niche group of just twenty individuals had submitted 25% of the frontpage content. A few sites have raised the problem of groupthink and the possibility that the site is being "manipulated", so to speak. In response to this question, the site's founder Kevin Rose has announced an upcoming change to the site's algorithm.

I am recommending two other models now, rather than just a 'Pop Idol' model for online voting contests.

These models are:

1. The Reverse Pop Idol - Where the public vote on their favourites - acting as a type of advisory panel - and then the judges choose from the candidates with the highest votes

2. Keynesian Beauty Contest - developed by John Maynard Keynes, Wikipedia describes this as a concept, where in a fictional newspaper contest, each entrant is asked to choose a set of six faces from photographs of women that were the "most beautiful". Those who picked the most popular face are then eligible for a prize. In my version of the beauty contest, if you vote for the same faces as the judges finally do then you win. I think this model reduces the chances of cheating on one level (through fake accounts and multiple voting), creates more community through anticipating and studying everyone else's voting patterns, and it makes it a more unpredictable game because the judge's choice needs to be guessed at as well.

Keynes (pictured above) said “It is not a case of choosing those [faces] which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.” (Keynes, General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, 1936).

"Keynes believed that similar behavior was at work within the stock market. This would have people pricing shares not based on what they thought their fundamental value was, but rather based on what they think everyone else thinks their value was, or what everybody else would predict the average assessment of value was."

For me Keynes is talking about a mechanism that establishes the wisdom of the crowds. In my last post, I said that 'process is more important than proposition', which is why in addition to thinking about message, and medium as classically done, we now also need to think about the process, or what I'd call the modus by which we organise participation. This type of thinking has typically been the preserve of game theorists, but now its another issue digital agencies will need to take on board.


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