The web has become the ‘go to’ place for anything and everything. Have a question? Ask Wikipedia. Want to find out what your vacation spot looks like? Search Flickr. Need to find a new restaurant? Head to Yelp. What makes this extraordinary is that this information is amassed you and I and not major corporations, advertising conglomerates or media companies.
By contributing our two cents to web-based communities, be it our opinion of a coffee shop, pictures from a Tahoe vacation, or feelings about a tardy morning bus, we’re adding a thought, opinion or image that can inform and potentially be of great value to others. Though alone, these data points may seem relatively insignificant, when added to the web, they become part of a collective experience that others can draw on to inform their lives and make better decisions.
Community-based sites are like platforms, but organically so, hosting information about the world as we see and experience it, and freeing it up to be marked by anyone. Consider these examples:
– When I add pictures of my wedding to a site like Flickr and tag them ‘fall wedding,’ ‘Sonoma,’ or ‘wine country wedding,’ I am contributing to a visual catalog about weddings. My pictures join thousands of other similarly tagged photographs and become almost a new breed of bridal magazine, though much more powerful than Modern Bride or Martha Stewart Weddings. The images on Flickr are not professional photo shoots, images of airbrushed models or advertisers trying to sell the perfect wedding, but real people, celebrating a day they poured their hearts and souls into creating. Further, people can comment on my photographs, contextualizing them even more. Now blushing brides-to-be have a visual resource that is personal, useful and free, to call upon when planning their wedding.
– When I spend time on Facebook, Twitter or Digg, I am choosing to actively participate in a larger conversation, rather than flip on the television and passively consume information. When I tweet about my evening walk with my dog, Riley, I am contributing a piece of data about myself, evenings and San Francisco to a larger database of information. This information can be sliced and diced to reveal patterns or social trends that can provide value to others as well as insight about the world around us.
– When I write a review of my local dry cleaner on Yelp or recommend its services on Wesabe, my opinion joins thousands of other opinions about other dry cleaners in my area. Collectively, this data can be analyzed and presented in way that helps others make the best possible decision for their needs and budget.
In each of these examples trivial tidbits from our everyday lives collectively become quite valuable. By participating in community sites, we are shaping a larger social landscape. This landscape has the power to better illuminate the material world around us and provide us with information that can help us make more informed decisions about our lives.
A couple weeks ago, I read an article called “The Annotated World” over at Chris Brogan’s blog that illuminated the power of community-based sites. Brogan provides a great list of ways you can use social websites to enrich your and others’ lives. Wesabe, spanglish for “together we know,” stems from the concept that collective intelligence has the power to make people far better consumers. Thus, I thought I’d add to Brogan’s list, highlighting a few ways you can use Wesabe to contribute to this growing collective experience.
In my examples of Flickr and Yelp, I talked about the “pointillist” possibilities of the web, where tiny pieces of information come together to make richer, coherent pictures, much like the dots in a Seurat painting. Wesabe’s Community operates similarly. One person asks question about their financial situation and, often within a day, is greeted with a series of answers that collectively point to the best answer for that person. This information can then be leveraged to the entire community. For example, a person looking to start an emergency fund can search that term and find wealth of information, trued, tried and tested by other individuals. Here, tiny pieces of information join each other to make a much larger answer.
However, community sites are opinion based and objective answers can at times be hard to find. This is a common critique of sites like Yelp, where a restaurant can consistently vary between one and five stars. Wesabe’s Tips feature provides a solution to this problem by pairing qualitative with quantitative information. By analyzing your shopping patterns against hundreds of thousands of other people’s shopping patterns, Tips examines the average amount spent at various stores, how often people shop at these businesses, and whether they recommend them or not. It then provides you with comparisons between places you often shop at and other places that people in your area often shop at. People might spend less at this business, come back all the time and highly recommend it (you can learn more about Tips here). Thus, you’re given the information to make a better-informed financial decision – another case of the individual benefiting from the power of collective intelligence.