Channeling the Wisdom of the Crowd

Melissa Sepe   December 22, 2009


Truth at your fingertips, courtesy of (Image via Laurie).

This summer I found myself with an absurd amount of free time between finishing graduate school and beginning my new job. Amid marathon sessions of Rock Band and America’s Next Top Model, I logged many an hour on, the latest brainchild of Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake and a group of MIT and Harvard alums. For those unfamiliar with Hunch, it is a decision-making site that provides personalized answers to questions ranging from “Which camcorder should I get?” to “Do I have bipolar disorder?” Or even more timely inquiries like “Have I had an affair with Tiger Woods?” to “Should I get my DNA sequenced?” Hunch relies on its community to generate and maintain a myriad of content, much like Wikipedia. In addition to providing their own questions and results, users edit, flag, approve, and refine their peers’ creations to improve the advice that the site doles out.

I hopped onto to the site at the tail end of its public preview phase, and after the June 15 launch there was a noticeable jump in both the site’s membership and its coverage in the tech blogosphere. Industry buzz about the NYC-based startup intensified last week when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales joined the board of directors on December 7. Wales cited Hunch’s unique combination of algorithms and collective intelligence as its major draw, saying,

[U]ntil recently I hadn’t seen a great example of how the two approaches could come together, co-exist and truly complement each other to form something greater than the sum of the parts – which I believe is the future of the web.

Staff members pitch in as well – one of Ms. Fake’s most recent additions was a thoughtful list of pros and cons about her dishwasher. The quantity of submissions continues to rise with nearly 15,000 as of this writing, and while every submission would ideally jibe with Hunch’s witty tone, even expert users’ contributions probably won’t be 100% perfect. As a result, Hunch employs some unique features to manage this deluge of user-generated content.

The “Workshop” section of the site helps determine which topics are of publishable quality; it provides a space where users can view and edit recently created topics, promoting the stronger contenders and voting down weak or redundant ones. Once a topic receives enough votes the staff promotes it to the main library, while unpopular topics become dormant. Hunch also provides a “Training” feature in which users adjust the logic of both promoted and Workshop topics, after which staff members lock thoroughly trained topics to prevent further unnecessary edits. Finally, a system of badges and points – “banjos” in Hunch-speak – encourages a steady stream of new content by making participation addictive and fun. While the satisfaction of contributing to a greater cause may inspire altruistic types to remain active members, racking up pieces of flair provides the extra nudge that the rest of us need to do the same. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t go on a contribution spree while chasing after my “10,000 Banjos Club” badge.

Of course, just as information-seekers must remember that Wikipedia entries aren’t always reliable, it seems twice as true that Hunch results – especially regarding major life decisions – should be taken lightly. Whereas Wikipedia’s vast and active user base allows for rapid self-healing of its inaccuracies, mistakes seem less likely to be corrected on Hunch, which has a much smaller community. However, as Hunch attracts a larger and more diverse audience it will hopefully grow and evolve to truly harness the wisdom of the crowd. It is already far more content-rich than when I first logged on, and while I still wouldn’t seriously listen to Hunch’s advice on how many children to have or whether to leave the East Coast, maybe it will help me plan my next vacation or choose a new hobby. I’ll also keep doing my part to make the site smarter for my fellow Hunchers. Why stop now? There are so many more banjos to be had.

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One Response

  1. bencurnett says:

    I’m up in the air about Hunch. I like how your post laid out the parts and pieces, and after reading it… I’m still completely torn.

    Here’s the thing: Hunch has all the ingredients. Community. Rewards. Game/quiz format to feed visits. It should be more than the sum of its parts, as quoted. But it’s not.

    To me, something just doesn’t seem right about hunch. Maybe it feels too contrived? I can’t quite put my finger on it. There’s some good content there, but, I don’t know if that’s how I want to find it.

    If I’m being honest, Hunch feels like a timewaster. I haven’t visited in a while, and the good points that you brought up will prompt me to go back.

    Thanks for the post.

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