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Crowdstorm: faith-based shopping

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"So," the CTO asked me. "Don't you think Wikipedia is the most amazing thing?"

There was a silence. A long silence, actually, as it dawned on me that halfway through our phone interview, the CTO regarded this as his argument-clincher.

"Wikipedia is such an impressive site - it is so accurate. I would be very happy to attain the quality that Wikipedia has achieved," he added.

Um. How could I even begin to let him down gently?

Crowdstorm is a shopping recommendation website which came out of "Alpha" and into "Beta" last week, and it's the latest entrant into a crowded field.

As with the rivals, you can't buy anything directly there - it sends you off to Kelkoo or eBay. And like its rivals, it comes in generic, off-the-peg Web 2.0 colours, with a generic, off-the-peg philosophy to match.

Crowdstorm CTO Christopher Scollo is a huge Wikipedia fan, along with co-founder Philip Wilkinson, who even though you haven't heard of him, naturally has his own Wikipedia page. Chris is also a fan of Digg, the social bookmarking site, he says.

"If you don't know a lot about the product area - and you want to know what real people are finding, this is a great place to start," Scollo said.

"We are letting the community decide in a quick and easy way which product has most buzz in an area. It's a kind of filtering, it lets them know where they should be focusing their attention," he says.

But from Howard Dean to Snakes on a Plane, marketers are discovering that net "buzzes" are far from representative of the true audience. The sites appear to be over-populated by net nerds with too much time on their hands. It works both ways, too - ad campaigns that got the thumbs-down from bloggers turned out to be huge successes in the real world.

Take Digg, for example. While useful for gathering up headlines, the site is notorious as the embodiment of groupthink - a dumb mob at its worst. Earlier this year we reported how Digg voters promoted a story about a games company with the misleading headline, "Company WANTS its game pirated". Those few contributors who had read the actual story, realized the company didn't - but those corrections, that didn't agree with the dominant sentiment, were booed down.

On sober reflection, Scollo insists that Crowdstorm "can learn from Wikipedia mistakes", such as trying to be a democracy. "We're not claiming to be open," he said.

We instead recommended Reddit, which has a more mature and skeptical audience, but Chris hadn't heard of it.

But he did place a lot of store in the power of voting.

"I agree you can't control the tone of site with algorithms, but there are mechanisms [our emphasis] in place so better comments are rewarded; the user can filter away the comments that are a waste of time," he said.

At which point, we made the oft-repeated observation that to enjoy Slashdot to its fullest, you need to read it at -1. That's where a lot of the wittiest remarks are made (and labelled "-1, Troll"), and you also get a better idea of how people are reacting. In fact, there's a whole subterranean subculture down below zero - with running gags that span several months, such as the Sentient ATM.

On even further sober reflection, the CTO agreed that the problems that make these social recommendation websites so bland and unrepresentative couldn't in the end be fixed by a mechanism, although we had to endure a lot of talk about "tweaking the fuzz" and "control flows" to get there.

"I agree it's not something with a structural solution, it's entirely down to the people. We want to start with enthusiasts, and let it grow from there." It's down to sociology in the end.

He's right, of course. But the very rare exceptions started with a community, which then expressed its interests - Yelp being the poster child. It didn't really begin life as a recommendation site, if you read our preview a couple of years ago. Yelp has built up a lively organic community of enthusiasts - and once you know the community, you can take their recommendations with the necessary bagful of salt where needed.

Which got to the crunch. Why, if I set out looking for a new digital camera, say, want to read what pseudonymous bloggers were saying about it, rather than DP Review? Isn't any recommendation site going to be gamed sooner or later? I'd trust the professional reviewers every time.

There's certainly a gap in the market for a good, neutral recommendation site - one that collates all the expert information from sources like DP Review, as well as amateur experts, and presents it for you really nicely. In other words, one that performs an editing function - starting with the good stuff.

Crowdstorm, we suggested, has set itself a Herculean task by approaching the problem from the opposite direction - by inviting anyone to post any old rubbish, and hoping that the good stuff will magically (sorry, algorithmically) rise to the top.

But not if you have faith. And it's down to that faith thing, really - web developers have too much faith in the tools.

They'll start they're own Church soon, I swear - the Church of the Rounded Rectangle. ®

Bootnote

Given that Netscape is now paying its best contributors for its own Digg-inspired news portal, would Crowdstorm consider doing the same?

Scollo said: "It has some advantages and some disadvantages quite apart from the capital needed, and it doesn't reward quality neccessarily, rather than reward quantity."

Crowdstorm might consider some non-monetary rewards, however, in the future, said Scollo. Blessings, perhaps.

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