Mobs have been getting unusually good press these days. In his excellent new book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki (a former Slate columnist) argues that groups of people are smarter than any individual member. In Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold showed how a massive gang of citizens connected by mobile phones toppled the president of the Philippines. And every day the unruly stock market, with its zillions of buy-and-sell orders, identifies a hot or cold company long before any individual analyst can spot it. Crowds, it seems, have a truly superhuman intelligence.
Now there's evidence they may even be creative. A few weeks ago, Wikipedia—an "open content" encyclopedia where anybody can write or edit an entry—produced its 300,000th article. At 90.1 million words, Wikipedia is larger than any other English-language encyclopedia, including the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which has only 85,000 articles and 55 million words. This is all the more impressive when you realize that Wikipedia came into existence a little more than three years ago, and not a single contributor has been paid. Every word was written by volunteers, an enormous army digging out a massive anthill, grain by grain.
Just how inventive can an anonymous group of people be? Could an online mob produce a poem, a novel, or a painting? We like to believe that the blue bolt of artistic inspiration strikes only the individual. "[The] group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man," John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden. Hollywood scriptwriters constantly moan over how their brilliant ideas were mutilated by studio "editing by committee."
But collaboration has a long history in art. Plays are frequently infected with ideas that came from actors or even sound engineers. Some Shakespeare scholars wonder whether some of the Bard's lines came from onstage improvisations by actors. And though many of today's writers and creators would never admit it, editing by committee can rescue an overindulgent work. Collaboration is old hat.
Still, until now it's been limited to a small handful of people, usually face to face. The Internet lets thousands of total strangers collaborate to produce a truly hivelike result. One intriguing example is "Typophile: The Smaller Picture," a project that let an anonymous crowd design a font. Kevan Davis, a British Web developer, created grids of pixels, 20 by 20 in size, one for each letter of the alphabet. He randomly dispersed black-and-white pixels in each. Then he put them online and let people vote on whether a particular pixel should be white or black. As thousands of people voted on each one, letters emerged, forming a democratic consensus of what the alphabet should look like.
Davis created animations that show each letter taking shape, and they're mesmerizing, a time-lapse movie of a collective mind at work. Another designer took the results and produced crisper-edged versions of each letter. The final result looks like a mildly punk version of Helvetica, with occasional flashes of creative weirdness, such as the jaunty serif on the foot of the letter "J."
Yet the process has its flaws. When the mob tried to draw a few simple pictures, it couldn't. Davis told it to draw a television, but the image never congealed. The group agreed that the tube should be represented by empty space, but it couldn't generate any other details. An attempt at drawing a face produced an even more shapeless mess. The only partially successful picture was a goat: At around 4,000 votes, it looked pretty goatlike, and at 5,000 votes the mob revised it to make the horns curvier. But after 7,000 votes the picture decayed into a random jumble of pixels, as if the group could no longer agree on what a goat should look like. Mobs, it seems, can't draw.
Why did letters work, but not pictures? Probably because the second experiment was too free-form. Ask a group of people to draw the letter "E," and most of them will envision something pretty similar. Ask them to draw a face, and they'll have a much broader array of opinions, and thus more disagreement. Truly huge artistic collaboration on the Internet seems to work only if the gang has a well-defined objective.
The Wikipedia people have been discovering this themselves, after launching a project to have people collaboratively write textbooks: Wikibooks. When I spoke to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, he noted that while some textbooks are evolving nicely, most aren't experiencing the wild success of the Wikipedia. A textbook requires a consistent sense of style and a linear structure, hallmarks of a single authorial presence. An encyclopedia doesn't.
In a sense, the world of online collaboration is discovering what artists have always known: Rigid conventions are often crucial to producing art. Novels, poems, and oil paintings are really just structural devices that take an artist's zillion competing ideas—an internal, self-contradicting mob—and focus them into a coherent work.