The power of 1000 monkeys

When discussing my conceptual framework for leveraging multi-disciplinary work for the benefit of open source projects (um, aka “CivicForge”), I’ve made the point that we will achieve world domination because our thousand one-pound monkeys who build open source tools will be able to outwit, outhink and out-heart any 800 lb. proprietary gorilla.

Whether true or not, it’s a fairly accurate image of the open source community, given its neurotic and somewhat anarchic inner workings. Primarily owing to its quasi-egalitarian social structure, decision-making is often controversial, contested and often downright perplexing. Nevertheless, good tools are produced that stand the test of time, are oftentimes less fragile than their proprietary counterparts and hell, give a wide swath of folks with all kinds of disparate ideas and experiences the chance to get involved in building tools that affect (and potentially improve) their lives (this is why DRM makes no sense in open source tools: why would you handicap your own tools? — it’d be like building the QWERTY keyboard all over again!).

So let’s cut to the chase: 1000 one-pound monkeys acting by autonomously self-organizing provides an answer to the dilemma that Noah Brier raises about the attention issue (Via Alex Barnett):

“But here’s my widespread adoption issue: the general public don’t think they have an ‘attention problem.’ If you ask people how much television they watch, they’ll tell you less than they actually do. Most individuals have no clue what they actually spend their time doing … yeah new technologies will force people to split their time more and more, but will they notice/care? I think it’s really important to remember that the average person has no desire to sit around and read all these RSS feeds then blog about them. In fact, if you showed someone how I spend my attention online, they’d probably think I was an idiot who was wasting time.”

While in isolation and over a short enough time horizon, Noah’s point may prove true, I think this misses the historical significance that the experience of a thousands of monkeys can offer to a culture. I’m sure at some point some wise fella claimed that no one would ever walk around carrying a “portable phone”, but clearly after the monkeys got a hold of them, culture soon changed so that now that’s now the common reality (at least in developed countries).

So I wouldn’t poo-poo the notion just coz us geeks need to better attenuate our attention streams. We’re on the vanguard here, and what we need today will surely eventually be needed by nongeeks, especially those kids growing up on MySpace and LiveJournal today.

So think about it this way. The drains on our personal attention are getter greater and more promiscuous. We will need to manage it. The kids in school tomorrow will need more and more tools to manage it — and will be looking for tools. What happens next? The cult of a thousand teenage monkeys will go about the incremental effort of virally spreading those tools to their friends, and will ultimately install it on mom and dad and grandma’s computer… and say stuff like, “Oh no! You’re still using that silly [insert obsolete app here]?? Here, try this!”

And poof. One thousand elder monkeys will get the trickle up benefit of having their attention stream whipped, chopped, sliced and diced without ever knowing what RSS, blogging or the attention trust concept is all about owing to the tenacity and technological prowess of a generation of a thousand younger monkeys. Don’t underestimate the network, Noah. It might seem like all this stuff is just for geeks now, and that may be true for the next couple years. But as software improves and gets easier to use — we’re all going to be experiencing personal attention deficits like we’ve never witnessed — and then, yes then, just like the intarweb of today, the domain of attention attenuators will become the commonplace hangout of the jocks and divas, our moms and dads — and yes, we’ll still be there too, grappling with 3800 unread items.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

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