Mathematician Timothy Gowers thinks groups are often smarter than individuals.  In that light, last January he tried to solve a math problem no one had solved—a proof of the density Hales-Jewett theorem when k=3—in an online community.  He posted the problem on his blog and welcomed people around the world to come together to solve it. 



He said that many minds might solve a problem more quickly than a single one for the following three reasons (for his full explanation, see his blog post here):


1. Creativity is often fuelled by luck. If lots of people are working at once, it’s statistically more likely that one of them will get lucky.


2. Different people have different pools of information, and one person’s knowledge could add a missing piece to someone else's.  An example: Consider a novelist who wants to write a book about the Iraq War. She might know a lot about constructing a good novel, but not much about Iraqi culture. If she hires a few Iraqi sociologists and reporters to fill her in, that's quicker and probably goes deeper than spending 30 years of her own studying the country before writing.


3. Different people have different styles for building creative ideas. Some people are great at brainstorming; others are good at lending organization to the brainstorm; others are good at critical editing. When we get these minds together, each can productively contribute from her own style.


Gowers posted some rules for contributors to follow--like being as clear as humanly possible--and then posted the math problem online. Within three months, after about 1,000 posts by a range of contributors--not all of them specialists in the same type of math--the problem was solved.


This idea--that many brains are quicker than one--might seem obvious.  After all, we’re used to seeing collaboration fuel fields like math and science.  It is precisely through group efforts like NASA, Apple, and research institutes that we’ve brought ideas to practical fruition in science. 


But to a huge extent, we seem less willing to invest in the power of group work in other fields, like painting, music, and literature.  And this reluctance might not exist for the most logical reasons. After all, remember that our first big stories were constructed by groups: Tribes made myths and wrote songs that evolved with group input through time.  The Bible is a great collaborative book.  But since we’ve moved through the Renaissance into a modern culture that values a division between private and public life, we’ve increasingly fostered the idea that genius comes from the individuality or independence of one person’s vision.  We’ve particularly protected the cult of personality in fiction: We love to think of our brilliant writers as holed up in their rooms, working alone.  


Some innovators have tried to shake us out of the cult of individuality in literature.  For instance, Penguin launched A Million Penguins in 2007, in which they asked anyone online to contribute to a group novel.  Anyone could help write and edit this novel for about three months, and then the site was locked, and the novel was pronounced finished.  Other sites like and similarly allow strangers across the world to come together to write joint novels.  But in the Penguin experiment, at least, the book didn’t end up thrilling the people who started it, at least not on the level of aesthetics.  “No, a community probably can't write a novel,” lamented editor Jon Elek on his blog when the Penguin book was done. He felt that the novel had a schizophrenic character: bright in spots but stitched together with a silly logic.


But I’m not convinced that a good online novel could not still be made.


Maybe online collaborative fiction has so far seemed loose or sloppy because--unlike when we’re doing online math--there's no single necessary endpoint for a novel, so when a contributor goes online to be an author, she is tempted to use her performance by drawing attention to her voice rather than doing the more subtle work of skillfully advancing plot and character with psychological accuracy. There is, after all, a psychological logic to what happens in novels, but it's not easily publicly identified. 


Chekov said something like this: If a character in a story walks into a room and sees a gun on the table, there better be some logical follow-up, some psychological or structural implication that takes the other elements in the story into account.  In a novel, it’s certainly not true that “anything goes.”  A novelist needs to remember the events that have already happened and produce subsequent events that answer in some psychological or formal way to deepen interest in the scene.


So it’s hard to advance the “logic” in a novel, because it means spending a lot of time thinking about the psychological implications of what has come before.  In contrast, contributors can focus on the purely logical implications of what’s come before in math.  That’s an easier task for a group to approve or to vote down.  That is, if someone contributes a false step to solving a math problem online, her work will be voted off for being counterproductive. It's comparatively hard to rate a creative writer. She can "contribute" without being called out (or even calling herself out) for a contribution that doesn’t deepen the scene.


Or maybe it’s this: Maybe math moves to a non-personal truth, and in contrast, literature moves to illuminate a particular, personal viewpoint.  If this is true, then a billion viewpoints can average each other out in a productive way to help us reach an objective reality in math, but a billion viewpoints would just water each other down in fiction, where we need a quirky subjective perspective to come to life in all its coloring.   


A different way to say a similar thing is to say that group work needs clear structure.  In math, the math problem structures the work.  In literature or art, we would go all over the place if we didn’t have a personal vision setting the agenda.  There are examples showing this online. Kevan Davis, a British Web developer, tried to see how the visual arts might evolve through group online work by giving his readers two tasks.  One was to develop a new typescript.  People could participate in the activity by voting for what pixels in a small square to illuminate or darken, and through millions of hits, the letters came into formation.  See them here, in various stages of formation and in their final edits.  That worked out in a way, because we all have a paradigm for what an “A” or a “T” needs to look like.  But the project didn’t work nearly as well when the goal became more subject to perspective.  In one task, he asked people to draw a television (see here), but it didn’t really work.  Neither did the face (here) or the goat (here). The goat got close to goatiness at 4,000 votes (here) but lost its form at 7,000 votes (here).


I wonder what you all think.  Under what circumstances could group work foster something unique and beautiful in the arts or in literature?  Right now I’m thinking of teams like the Cohen brothers, brothers who make movies together like Fargo and A Serious Man, or the former married team of filmmakers Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, who made hits like Private Benjamin and Father of the Bride.  Maybe those couplings worked because the teammates really did share an almost singular subjective vision. 


Does literature need a singular vision, or could many people come together to create one?

by on ‎12-24-2009 04:02 PM

I'll start this one off by saying,  I love this fascinating it's hard for me to contain my thoughts on this! 



I believe that it is possible to collaborate on writing, but as you note, Ilana, the collaborators really do have to be in tune with each other's thoughts, to make it work correctly.  This makes me think of song writers.  Two people who hear and feel each others vibrations.  The music and the lyrics have to see each other head on.  Vibration is an odd word, I know, to describe this, but it's almost an unspoken emotion, or energy, or tuning fork, that sends waves of feelings from one person to another.  The more people involved, in this type of collaboration, the more chance of that line of vision getting muddied. 



I've also watched and heard conductors talk about leading an orchestra.  There is brilliance in this one person, who is the only one who can bring all of the sounds of these instruments together to form the perfection that the music composer intended.  You can throw a bunch of musicians in a room together, with impromptu interpretations, it can be beautiful on its own merits,  but it will never be the intent of the composer of the original piece, unless you have someone skilled enough to coordinate all of these people.  I think that's the real key to any type of brainstorming, if you want to call it that.



The single, or sole artist, as in the production of a single work of art, interjects her personal reasons for which to translate that emotional landscape as the most important objective.  Visions are hard to translate, at times, into a verbal context, enough to be put into a collaborative work by many. It's like stretching your mind to the breaking point, to feed too many, just so they can see enough to angle their thoughts off of your intentions, or interpretations.  If that makes sense.


I've thought this over a great deal.  I want, and I've tried, to achieve collaborative writing, but it hasn't always worked.  On the Writing board, the moderator, Brandi, started a form of Haiku called, Regna.  Here is the link to these posts I participated in.  It didn't last long, and after my last post, it came to an end.  I'm not sure why.   I suppose it does have to end sometime.....but I think, at least I thought, Brandi would pick it back up.  Since she started it, I thought it would be nice if she finished it.  But, there you go, no one spoke up to direct, or discuss this.  It just ended.  But I found, you don't have many people wanting to participate in this type of writing.  I personally thought it fun and entertaining. 



On a thread that I started in the Community Room, this past year, which has now been turned into a board, The Kingdom of Wordsmithonia, I've tried on numerous occasions to start stories, so others could jump in and participate.  It never seemed to work, except when Becke came on and we could easily bounce off of each others minds.  The larger stories that I like to create, not the impromptu ones that Becke was involved in, were so engrained in my mind, that I think it was hard for people to engage in that thinking.  I ended up finishing the story, myself.  The second story that I started on the actual board, last month, I couldn't get anyone to actually participate.  But, the whole of the board was created so everyone could become a character, and that in itself, has worked. 



The hard part is, what I might think as a logical flow of circumstances, or construction, may seem illogical to follow by others, or visa versa.  If I don't see a line of thinking forming, or coming to what I believe to be a reasonable storyline, and I can't redirect it, I will drop it all together.  You need a willing group to participate in this type of work, and you need a good director.  I just haven't figured out how to direct, I guess.



I've read collaborative works of fiction, mother-daughter, and father-son, but I never found it to work for me, as far as a reader. (I won't post their names, unless you need to know) There seems to be a distillation of story, and their singular flavors appear to get lost in the writing.  But, I don't think these duos can see it.  Or if they can, they seem to ignore that fact, and do it for the shear joy of collaboration.  If it makes them happy, and makes them money, by having that certain populous to read them, then that's fine, too.  But they've lost me as a reader.



I can't think in math terms, other than I see it in hard-edged perspectives.  As some writers like to see a well formulated outlined work of fiction, before they even start the process of writing.  I personally get an idea, then run with it.  But I do have to stop, and look around to see where I am.  I look back, and wonder at what is said, and how that will lead me to my next point of exploration.  I do love to explore in writing, it seems.  As far as my visual art work, it needs to be a little more concrete, visualizing the end results.  In writing, I get excited when something new comes around the corner to greet me.  It's another challenge, the process of art is wonderful.  It appears when I see no challenge, in myself, or the purpose behind the challenge, or have others stop challenging me, I tend to lose interest, or steam, or vision. 



Who knows what might come of collaborative online stories, until you try.  I don't know how far off base I am in my thinking, or writing, but it would be fun to see the results.  Other than these boards, I've never tried it.  So, whoever [Ilana] wants to blast a few words out there, I'll give them my best shot!  Ha!






by Blogger IlanaSimons ‎12-26-2009 12:44 PM - edited ‎12-26-2009 12:46 PM

Hi Kathy--

Thanks for the link to the collaboration that Brandi hosted.  That's interesting stuff.  


You've helped me think more about collaboration.  For instance, I'm thinking that translation is a sort of collaboration, as is any revision of an age-old story (Shakespeare took a lot of his plots from exiting stories.  I'm thinking of the recent "modernization" of The Canterbury Tales by Peter Ackroyd (b/c there's a great New Yorker article on Ackroyd and Chaucer now).  Ackroyd converted Chaucer's work into his own language, thereby collaborating with a writer who's no longer living).


I like your analogy to music.  I do think jazz is a successful collaboration that does not depend on a conductor, but it does depend on the fixed structure behind a jazz tune--so there is some rule that directs the contributors.  In jazz (but I'm jazz-ignorant so can stand to be corrected), musicians need to follow the key that the piece is in and return to written music that frames the improvised parts.

by on ‎12-26-2009 06:35 PM

I guess when I think of collaboration, I think of it as with 'live' people, not someone's interpretations of an already written piece. But you made me think of the writing of the Bible.  Two ways to look at that, and possibly ending in yours, and my, interpretation of collaboration.  Originally, the text was written by many people, but half of the end results was written in Greek, and the other half in Hebrew.   Later, scholars had to translate both halves, of these many writers, but they had to be scholars in that language.  But, with any interpretation, especially over so many years, words change to suite the readers of the day.  As an example, the King James version is a beautiful, poetic interpretation, but it's not accurate in its actual word translation.


I've collected several Bibles over the years.  One may be exact in its Greek translation, and not in its Hebrew, and visa versa, so I compare more than one publication to get to the understanding I need.  The modern language publishers of today have also rewritten these texts.  So many people ask, or question the writers of these books, and it becomes a hang up for them, in that they feel there is no truth to all of these interpretations, and then say, "who's right?"  I tell them I've read from all, comparative reading, finding out exactly what those words mean, comparing them to that period in history, to the day they were first written, I want to know what they felt at that moment in time.....and only then do I find that truth of understanding.  I have to trust these trusted scholars, as well as the publishers of these books.  I've seen and read some really messed up versions, too, which is a shame.


Music is nothing but symbols, mathematical art, as it were.  It's all structured.  It's just another language that you can learn, and interpret, but an art that can be interpreted so differently by the individual artist.  You can have a musician who plays by the strict structure, as someone who paints by numbers, or you have a musician who can run with those symbols, and form them into a piece that nobody has every done before, as with Jazz, or impromptu pieces.  Two kinds of musicians, ones who play by the rules, and ones who don't.  No two artists paint the same.  Except for the forgeries, but they can be detected by experts, that's plural collaboration to finding the 'real' work of art, from the forgery.  They can both be seen as beautiful, but one came from the heart, and the other came from the head.

by on ‎12-26-2009 07:46 PM

Well shared world novels work. When a group of authors write short stories and novelaas using a shared pool of characters, mythology, backdrop.The "Thieve's World" universe even spawned spin off novels, subsidised novels and a second decade late new generation start up. Merovingen Night's spawned 10 editions before it died down. The In Hell books didn't do bad either.


There are very good collective books out there.


by M_Malloy on ‎12-27-2009 02:10 PM

Walt Disney, I believe, produced many wonderful things such as 'Pirates of the Caribbean' at the same time as he made 'Sleeping Beauty' and other masterpieces by exhibiting strong production control in the vision while allowing the best artists to create within his boundaries.


George Lucas in the many 'Making of' documentaries about Star Wars and his other movies,  exhibits strong visionary control allowing collaboration of thousands of disparate artists with one master vision. Vision must be contained by one master vision with a director/producer with lots of power, control and well, resources like money.  To have artistic vision and the business skills to produce it seems quite extraordinary, and yet it is occurring in our film industry everyday. I say this is one dynamic industry within America: we have been producing lasting quality of movies for many decades seen the first movies were made here.

by on ‎12-27-2009 02:50 PM



That seems to be the right direction, strong leadership, in this genre of movie making.  Disney had the vision, and what it took to get great companies of people together, to create his vision.  Control over a group, but confidence enough to allow that artistic ability of those individuals to make their art shine through.  It's a good mix, when it happens.


In creating a single story, by many writers, that's where it seems to get messy.  I think that writers, alone, can, and do, want to dominate their own thoughts in the direction of that story.  I'm guessing.   In books that have short stories by different authors, that's another situation. 


I don't think fiction writers, themselves, want to be controlled.  It's a selfish work of art.  Also,  I was thinking about all of the writers it takes to put on Ellen's show.  Her monologue is a work of collaboration....but individual....and of course she can approve, or reject what she wants, she has the ultimate control, but not everything she says is written by herself.  She has a good group of writers, and they have to feel what she would possibly say. They anticipate her moves, her voice, her facial expressions, to make it all work to be funny. They're in sink.  Again, I think that's the issue with any collaboration, listening to each other.



by on ‎12-27-2009 03:59 PM

This subject made me think about my two favorite TV programs, House and Bones.  Both of these programs are based on collaborative teams at work.  It's interesting to see how each of these people contribute to the final outcome of that story, solving the crimes, or finding the results in saving a life.  Doctors, police, all teams of all sorts, have to know their job description to make the ends come together.  That might be the problem with anything like writing online.  So many divers personalities, not being able to think as one.  It might be easier to collaborate in person.


I was thinking, too, about when I was in charge of a PTO board.  Having so many school projects to deal with in just one year, at the "suggestion" of the Principal.   She had her goals, and we were there to help her meet them.  


Also, when I was given that high school gradnight project, a ton of people had to be consulted and coordinated, inside the school system, and outside the system....and it all revolved around my vision of that island I was asked to create.  Thankfully, other people were in charge of other aspects, as well.


An enormous amount of work was involved, by a lot of people.  I had to make the decisions on which job was suited for that person, or persons.  But, I couldn't demand anything of them.  I wanted perfection, but I found I couldn't ask that of someone who volunteers as a parent in the schools.  A lot of give and take takes place, in these cases.  A lot of talking things through.  I stepped on a few toes in the process, but I had deadlines, expectations were riding on me, and I had to figure out the best way to achieve them.  It all worked, in the end, because these people were willing to contribute, as well as listen.   Cooperative team work got the job done.

by on ‎12-28-2009 02:31 PM

Ilana wrote:

I wonder what you all think.  Under what circumstances could group work foster something unique and beautiful in the arts or in literature?  Right now I’m thinking of teams like the Cohen brothers, brothers who make movies together like Fargo and A Serious Man, or the former married team of filmmakers Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, who made hits like Private Benjamin and Father of the Bride.  Maybe those couplings worked because the teammates really did share an almost singular subjective vision. 


Does literature need a singular vision, or could many people come together to create one?



Well, I've been fascinated by this subject, as you have noticed I've "brainstormed" my way through it, but I woke this morning with one more thought (or maybe two, or three...who knows where it will stop?  Someone want to stop me?):


You say, "unique and beautiful",  That's a tall order, and in itself a subjective vision.  But you're right, I think, the couplings do work if the "teammates do "share an almost singular subjective vision."


Your question:  "Does literature need a singular vision, or could many people come together to create one?"


I just finished reading, last night, a funny little book by Wally Lamb, Wishn' and Hopin'.  At the end, as most books, I found and read the acknowledgements.  The question rose in my mind, how many people does it take to create a "singular vision"?  I think Wally Lamb answered that question...with these questions:


Where do you get those visions to write that book?  Who is involved in this collaboration?  Everyone from strangers to friends, to editors to researchers; from the art department, illustrators and photographers, to the publishers requirements.  And in some cases, that little publication ends up on B&N to talk about, adding more and more to that work of literature, the art form changes from person to person, from reader to reader. 


In the end, it is "Millions of Minds Make Genius."  We may never know which singular mind it was that triggered all of this; an idea, a word, a sentence, an experience..... in these collaborations. 

My question is:  [smiling] What triggered this blog subject to begin with? 



by on ‎12-29-2009 09:29 AM

What triggered this blog subject to begin with?


Or blogs, for that matter?

by on ‎12-29-2009 11:38 AM

Yes, Pepper, "or blogs, for that matter".  I like to guess, and sometimes I think I know.  Little trails of bread crumbs!  Ha!  I think I've eaten all of these crumbs, now.  I'm full.

by on ‎12-30-2009 01:01 PM

Collaboration:  Why do we want to collaborate, in the first place?


Does it equal competition, but show a dilution of singular competitiveness with one's self?  Would we rather compete against others, rather than ourselves?  Does it bring out the best, or the strongest parts of our self?  Or does it weaken the strength of the formation of individual  thought?  If I expect more people to become involved, what does that say to my self esteem, or worth?  Or could it be that competition takes the focus of the individual?  I should have these answers, but I just thought of these questions, and to answer them takes time.  Is this where collaboration comes in?  

by on ‎12-30-2009 03:54 PM

Well if you want to look at it purely scientifically. It tends to generate competition and strife. The recent Pluto incident comes to mind. Where a committee of 36 people decided Pluto is no longer a planet. Much to the disgust of non scientists, not to mention all the equally qualified scientists that didn't get invited.


But if you look at it creatively. Art in any form is either singular, partnerships, or group efforts. Mixed results yes, not every jam band is a good one.


by on ‎12-30-2009 09:01 PM

reason, goal, answer - ready, aim, fire


nothing is pure anything - science or creative thought


fact - proof = results


how far can you dg into the earth's core, before finding fire?


diagnosis = genius

by on ‎12-30-2009 09:27 PM

Ok Kathy if that isn't poetry, you've lost me.

by on ‎12-31-2009 12:57 PM

Ha!  Hi, Tigger, I didn't mean to scramble your brain, but are you saying that if it were poetry, I wouldn't have lost you?  It wasn't meant to be poetry.  I know how you dislike poetry. 


It was just the way my mind was functioning last night.  One of my moods.  It was skimming over the facts, and working its way down through to an end, the core, a deduction. 


I don't think you can define genius.  It's all a process of the imagination, or mind.  Whether the individual is given facts or fiction, it all has to be refined..... the same process which brings minds to a conclusion;  Or in this case, a collaborative result, a diagnosis as I called it.  As I said, it's following the bread crumbs.  I just followed my own bread crumbs, is all.  I don't know if anyone would understand that process, except the individual that it happens to. 


If you put a bunch of morons in a room to collaborate on a subject, the end results of that collaboration will still be moronic.  Does it take one genius in that room of morons to spawn genius?  Or does genius seek genius, or maybe morons seek morons?


No, I'm not a genius, nor am I a moron......just someone who has off the wall, Picasso-abstract thoughts on this subject.

by on ‎12-31-2009 05:24 PM

No problem, funny how free associative thinking looks like poetry on paper.


You never heard the one where if you put a typewriter in a room full of monkeys eventually they'll produce the complete works of Shakespeare?


by on ‎12-31-2009 06:31 PM

No, never heard that one! 


It's funny, I saw a program this week on the Darwin theory, and what makes us different from the Chimp.  This guy has a theory, in looking at our DNA, and that of the Chimp's, he traced it all back to the brain.


Our jaw muscles develop smaller than the Chimps, which shows we put less stress on our cranial structure during the mastication process, and growth period, allowing our cranial bone to grow larger, a container allowing our brains to grow larger.  We can't chomp down as hard. 


The Chimp's brain is smaller because the cranial formation is stunted, holding the brain back from further developing, due to the strong force the mandible puts on the skull.  Interesting deduction, scientifically speaking a conclusion, but who knows for sure? 


If you change that one DNA in the Chimp, which would change the mandibular muscle, which would change the eating process, which would change the cranial development, which would change the size of the brain, which would allow it to grow, which may give them the ability to speak, and who knows then, for sure, whether or not that hairy little guy could develop his thumbs well enough to type, and voice enough, to quote Shakespeare!  Ha!  Have we created a genius, a monster, or a moron, with an over abundance of hair!   Back to the drawing board, Darwin!


by on ‎12-31-2009 11:23 PM

Ok got one for you. It's messing right now with the anthropologists heads.


Observation of the Monobo ape. They spent most of their walking upright on two legs, they only knuckle drag when on a dead out run. The use tools, not just a picked up stick or sharp rock. But warping sticks, chisling pieces of rock to sharpen the sticks, vine wrapped handles, shaping the rock chips to specific shapes. Not only that but mothers pass on their tool building skills to their young. Observers have charted tool improvement down the generations (5 so far). And well if you look at imagry of them their faces are balding, their legs and arms are half bald, as are thier bellies. They have big knoggins too.


Recent articles have the scientists in fits, ok so adaptation works but that fast? Don't count Darwin out.

by on ‎01-01-2010 12:23 PM

I don't think anyone counts Darwin out, now.  He left room for all kinds of questions....and all kinds of answers.  I think he would be thrilled at the discoveries of these new generations of collaborators.  Happy New Year, TiggerBear!

by on ‎01-01-2010 04:41 PM

A Happy New Year to you Kathy and to all!

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