Do we need technology visionaries to tell us what we want – singular, charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg to decide what the next smart device should look like, invent the next social network we'll all join or dream up the next must-have app we'll all download?
Or can that instead be done by the "crowd" – the nameless and unheralded users, hackers and coders behind the scenes?
Consider the case of Dandy, a start-up based in Waterloo, Ont., that introduced a new app called Picture This at the remora-like New Media Expo, a smaller event that takes place alongside the huge CES technology convention in Las Vegas every year.
Dandy's chief executive officer, Matt Scobel, did not come up with the idea for the Picture This app – that was a Columbia University student – and his company did not write all of the code or even choose the name. For these things, Dandy held a contest – promoted on social media – and opened up the key decisions about the app to the wisdom and the skills of the crowd.
What Dandy did was provide a framework to channel the talents and energy of hackers and coders. It turned them into virtual volunteers who were willing to work for a share of the potential revenues earned by the app – but not for any equity in the firm.
"I think people are getting more collaborative," Mr. Scobel says. "The way we set up Dandy was to encourage people to understand that you shouldn't be going into this to expect fair market value for what you're doing."
With prodding from Dandy, disparate individuals collaborated to create the smartphone app they wanted but couldn't find. They came up with Picture This, which lets users channel the most ubiquitous of smartphone activities – taking photos of random stuff – into contests to snap the best shot of an item or a theme (great shoes, epic selfies, etc.) and win prizes such as BlackBerrys and gift cards.
The ability of a committee of the willing to build valuable and popular software is not unprecedented. Mozilla, open-source collective, used volunteer efforts to build Firefox into one of the world's top Web browsers. Wikipedia is a database almost entirely voluntary in construction, and the operating system Linux was created by hackers.
But as popular as these things are, we tend not to invest them with the same mythical status that Mr. Zuckerberg and Google's billionaire CEO, Larry Page, have been granted. Reverential media coverage and social networking that focus on the superstar executives of tech companies have created the "Great Man of Technology" myth (some are, in fact, women, but it is still a troublingly male pantheon).
That's changing, though. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have gotten people used to the idea of "voting" with small cash donations for hardware, software, musical projects and even movie and book ideas. At CES this year, there were more than 70 ready-for-market gadgets on the show floor that were born of crowdfunding sites. The next logical step is to ask users not just "Will you pay for this?" but "What should we make together?"
Will it work for Dandy? Who knows. There are a million apps in Apple's App Store, a large chunk of which were the creation of small shops of developers and which few people download. It is crushingly hard to stand out from the crowd.
"There is a bit of a gold rush [in the App Store]," Mr. Scobel says. "The people in the top 1 or 2 per cent are winning. … Everyone else is struggling."
There is also a dark side to the hacker culture that is part of the crowd Dandy is trying to cultivate. Hackers are well-known for banding into groups like Anonymous, an at-times dangerously creative and controversial bunch of script kiddies, security wonks and activist developers. Its members have been know to deface, loot or break the websites of organizations that wander into their crosshairs.
Dandy hopes to make more apps by tapping into the crowd, but Mr. Scobel is aware of the inherent risks.
"We've gone through a crazy process to get here," he says. "I wake up and think, 'Man what the hell are we doing here?' The days that I feel that way, those are the days we're making progress. When I'm terrified out of my mind."