Did you hear the one about the guy who trotted a live ox out on stage during his TED talk and invited the audience to guess its weight? If so, then you’re already acquainted with Lior Zoref, an Israel-based “crowd wisdom researcher” and public speaker. Zoref began his career at Microsoft, becoming a vice president of marketing before deciding to leave to study the benefits of tapping into the wisdom of crowds.
In his new book “Mindsharing: The Art of Crowsourcing Everything” (Portfolio/Penguin, 258 pages, $26.95), Zoref discusses how he declared his dream of giving a TED speech in a video blog. A Facebook friend soon let him know about TED’s first audition for new speakers. Zoref passed the test; then he just needed an idea for his talk. Again Zoref turned to Facebook, where a teenager named Or Sagy suggested he bring an ox on stage and have the audience guess its weight, recreating “the most famous crowd wisdom experiment from more than a hundred years ago.”
Zoref took his advice. The TED organizers in Long Beach, California, in 2012 supplied him with an ox, and the average of the crowd’s guesses pegged the animal at 1,792 pounds — only three pounds less than its actual weight, supporting Zoref’s idea that crowds can be smarter than individuals.
Zoref doesn’t just advocate what he calls “mindsharing” to find ideas for talks, though. In his book, he cites examples of people successfully using mindsharing to come up with solutions to medical dilemmas and romantic droughts. People ask how to make career transitions and manage their finances.
To mindshare effectively, Zoref suggests you need at least 250 Facebook friends, which should generate enough responses to your query to benefit from crowd wisdom. Zoref also recommends using Quora or LinkedIn to post questions. Zoref writes Mindsharing in a peppy, enthusiastic tone and seems to believe it’s possible to crowdsource almost anything. I interviewed Zoref via email about the lack of diversity in the average Facebook user’s social network, unusual uses of mindsharing, and whether there’s anything one shouldn’t crowdsource.
One topic you don’t discuss extensively in “Mindsharing“ is the question of privacy. You suggest that people can ask intimate questions of their crowd, including advice on romance, finances, and medical issues. (You mention that Quora is a place people who want to ask an anonymous question can do so.) But do you ever worry about privacy online, and if so, what precautions do you take? What’s your advice for someone who wants to engage in mindsharing but who is squeamish about sharing so many personal details so publicly?
Lior Zoref: Different people have different approaches to privacy. Young people (digital natives) share almost everything while people who were born before the Internet tend to place more emphasis on privacy. I’m not sure if there’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ approach, and I respect everyone’s choices.
Many people feel vulnerable about sharing personal details while others see this as a strength.
Sharing online has great benefits, one of them being mindsharing. As someone who is mindsharing all the time, it’s most important for me to make sure there’s value in what I share. But there are also many risks, so I don’t share everything. For example, if I’m on vacation with my family (leaving my house empty), I try not to post this until I’m back. I have even more restrictions when it comes to my children. For example, my 12-year-old daughter is on Instagram. I made sure she has a private profile in which she accepts only people she knows personally. For those who are nervous about sharing too much online, start with small questions and build your confidence from there.
How do you foster diversity within social networks?
You encourage people to foster a diverse group of friends on Facebook and suggest that the crowd wisdom they derive might be better from such a diverse group than a homogeneous one. But according to a Washington Post article, 75 percent of white Facebook users don’t have any non-white friends. How do you suggest people build diversity in their friend networks?
Zoref: Diversity is key in order get wisdom out of big crowds, but it is related to each question differently. If your query is about parenting, you need a diverse crowd of parents with different experiences and views. If your question relates to different ethnic backgrounds, then your Facebook friends are probably not diverse enough to answer this question. In such a case, I recommend trying other platforms such as Quora at “Ethnic and Cultural Differences” topic.
With diversity sometimes comes adversity! Many people tend to unfriend those who voice a political opinion opposite from their own. How can we build a crowd that is diverse enough to be wise without gathering a bunch of people who will constantly offend each other?
Zoref: When people are passionate about their opinions around certain topics, there’s a tendency for them to be impolite. I treat conversations on my Facebook wall as if it were a conversation among friends even if most of them are my “weak ties.”
“Weak ties,” a term coined by Professor Mark Granovetter in 1973, are acquaintances rather than close friends and family. If someone leaves a disrespectful comment, I ask them to respect others. If they continue to provide hostile feedback, I feel okay unfriending them.
Throughout “Mindsharing,” you stress the differences between mindsharing, a positive aggregation of diverse opinions and ideas, versus groupthink, the psychological phenomenon in which members of a group strive to conform with each other, and end up with more radical ideas than they would have held otherwise (which some believe to be responsible for calamities such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the collapse of Swissair). Given the fact that the average Facebook user doesn’t have a very diverse network, isn’t there a possibility that an attempt at mindsharing could result in groupthink?
Groupthink happens mostly inside big organizations where people are afraid to confront their superiors. This doesn’t happen on Facebook as there’s no hierarchy. This is why I think that mindsharing through social networks has the potential to give completely different and unbiased answers when comparing to answers inside big organizations.
Is it possible to be too helpful and cooperative?
In 2013, the New York Times Magazine profiled Adam Grant, a young Wharton School professor who insists that relentlessly helping others is the secret to his success. Susan Dominus writes: “For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”
So Dominus tried out Grant’s philosophy for a while and answered random email queries that she used to ignore. She soon found herself overwhelmed with follow-up queries and more demands on her time. You seem like you advocate Grant’s sort of philosophy—you’ve invited anyone who reads “Mindsharing” to email you with their thoughts on it. Has the volume of your emails increased? How do you help and listen to people while still having time for your family and your work?
That’s a good question. I actually asked Adam Grant for his advice towards the “Mindsharing” launch, and he was very kind to help.
Giving value is something I try to do on a one-to-many approach as I try to share things that educate and inspire others. If someone reaches out to me and asks for my help, I always try and respond. Mindsharing just went on sale on April 28. The volume of my emails has already increased while I’ve been on tour, so I respond to as many requests as I can. If I get swamped with many emails, I get help in filtering, and I’ll try to share answers to common questions on my blog.
You write: “Success, in any area, can come just as readily from thinking cooperatively as it does from thinking competitively.” You have a corporate background—you worked at Microsoft for many years prior to pursuing your doctorate in crowd wisdom. Have you encountered any resistance to this idea that cooperation works better than competition, perhaps especially among people within corporations?
I have encountered resistance to the idea that cooperation works better than competition. Many organizations foster competition among employees. In such cases, it’s hard to cultivate true cooperation. When I worked at Microsoft, there were annual prizes that recognized excellence by an individual. Each employee received a grade that instilled healthy competition among peers. This happens in many organizations.
On the other hand, there are leaders that understand that their employees are smarter combined than one individual employee. Those organizations nurture mindsharing internally to get better results.
Here’s a link to an example.
Is there anything people shouldn’t crowdsource?
One use of mindsharing that I find intriguing is crowdfunding, especially on websites such as Experiment.com that are using crowdfunding to finance scientific research. When trying to study a treatment, say, that won’t be lucrative enough for drug companies to fund, or trying to study something like fracking that can be nearly impossible to fund due to political pressures, these websites come in handy. Can you think of other ways that mindsharing can be used to generate new ideas and data that would never come into fruition just due to regular market pressure?
For every challenge that could be solved with creativity and wisdom, mindsharing can be used as a methodology to find solutions.
As long as there is a large, enthusiastic crowd, mindsharing can be a solution for almost any challenge that governments or NGOs aren’t solving effectively enough.
I searched the crowdsourcing platform Quora to see what people think are the top challenges for humanity. Take a look at these questions and the highest rated answers.
Mindsharing has the potential to help leaders get breakthrough ideas in each and every of these challenges.
You suggest LinkedIn is a good place to tap into crowd wisdom, especially through joining groups that share your interests. In my experience, the LinkedIn groups I’ve joined (for freelance writing for example) have been unwieldy, and I don’t get enough value out of the time spent weeding through the queries and responses. On the other hand, I joined a secret group for freelance writers on Facebook, and I get a lot of value out of that, perhaps because it’s smaller and more focused than the LinkedIn groups. How do you suggest people find groups that deliver good value for the time they spend reading and responding to queries?
There are different criteria for finding good places for mindsharing among professionals. In LinkedIn, it’s not just about the group size but also how it’s being managed. For example, there are groups in which people try to sell stuff or promote themselves. Other groups have strict rules that enforce true collaboration, which is more effective.
I created a list of recommended LinkedIn groups. This list will evolve over time as I get more feedback and make it more comprehensive.
As for secret Facebook groups, in many cases, they are an amazing resource for mindsharing, but there’s no way to create such a list. Still, you can crowdsource to find the best groups. Just ask a question at Quora or with your own crowd, and see where it leads you.
Is there anything you don’t think people should use mindsharing to solve?
Mindsharing works best for problems that require human intelligence. If there’s a challenge that only provides value to oneself, it will be difficult to get crowds to respond. For example, if someone were to ask “I want to be rich. What should I do?” they will probably get criticized for being selfish and won’t get genuine ideas.
You left a cliff-hanger in the book: you write about the time you went on a radio program to seek a date, and you ended up with hundreds of them. Did anything lasting result from this, or did you find your wife through a different process? Dating hundreds of women that you tracked through spreadsheets sounds exhausting! In retrospect, would you have gone on the radio program again?
As a result of being on the radio show, I met my first girlfriend. Later on, I was sent on a blind date through one of my early employers (as a student) and met my wife.
If we didn’t have social networks today, I would definitely go on another radio show. But today, there’s no need for radio or matchmaking websites. Go to your own crowd, they are the best matchmaker for you since they know who you are. Our “weak ties” are the people we should go to when we’re also seeking relationships. Based on my experiences, I believe that mindsharing is a great way to find love!
Jenny Shank‘s first novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, McSweeney’s, Prairie Schooner, and Dallas Morning News.