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Distributed knowledge: community research

Future Now reference an interesting article by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge journal on "caves, clusters, and weak ties: the six degree world of inventors". It shows how research works through social networks – that knowledge is ‘created’ through these social networks. [similar work by David Livingstone describes how historically scientists have had local knowledge clusters associated with their social networks in his book Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge].  The HBS article and Livingstone’s book have reinforced my views about the potential value of social networks for harnessed ‘nodes’ of knowledge.  It is clearly possible to harness knowledge from  geographically distributed social networks. For example there are some excellent aggregators and filters of information in the blogosphere – the best are essentially modern day ethnographers. The potential exists.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about community based research. Missing out the fieldworkers and cutting straight to these modern day ethnographers who are curious, who want to know, who describe and analyse and add value. Could you organise these researchers to follow a brief – to collect information about their views / consumption habits or the consumption habits or views of others reliably and effectively? So it is useful ? Think lazyweb for social research or what my mate Paul has called a "distributed focus group".  How could you gather original insight on specific questions with relative frequency. Dubit have a reward mechanism for, in this case, teenagers to state what their consumptions habits or views are for resale to large companies to refine their marketing strategies. It works for reactions to products but there is little "added value" or original insight from what I can see [but that is not to detract from the kind of information it does provide which I’m sure is very useful]. Would the ebay model work? Could you set a brief stating what you wanted to know – about which demographic, or product etc. in what format, by what date and let people state a price for that knowledge or that piece of work? The reputation system should reward those with ‘better’, more reliable and trustworthy research. Would a community research model such as this ‘work’? What are the downsides? Some universities and labs have research projects that have distributed nodes of knowledge, as do some global business projects. But here the community is reinforced by ‘institutional glue’ [employment contract for one].  Any examples or thoughts would be really appreciated.