Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Contests and Idea Spam

Recently, I submitted several ideas to this contest. They received more than 22,000 entries for a total cash prize of $200,000 so that works out to $9 per entry. Obviously, most of these entries are just bad ideas but since entry is free and there is an infinitely better chance of winning with a bad idea than with no entry at all, there were lots of entries.

The organizers of the SSB contest have a huge task to select 21 finalists from 22,000 entries. A knockout system similar to the one I described in this post might be workable here. Of course, it would be ten times easier if there were one-tenth the entries.

There is an interesting thing here. Good ideas are a pure public good. Once someone thinks it up and shares it with others, it has the potential to spread around the world and help others. But most ideas really aren’t that good. If a good idea is like a long e-mail from a good friend, a bad idea is like spam. Only it’s like spam that looks just like a real e-mail from a good friend that turns out to be something else only when you get into the middle of it.

I like the idea of having contests to generate good ideas in general. You could have contests for new business ideas or for new public goods or other things. But if you give a large prize for the winner and keep entry free, you will inevitably get a lot of idea spam.

Charging a fee to enter the contest would cut down on the idea spam, but it would raise a lot of legal and ethical issues. It would turn the contest into a lottery. And it would bring forth a multitude of lawsuit possibilities from disgruntled losers.

Another possibility along the same lines is to insist that each entry is matched by a sizable charitable donation. This might avoid a lot of the legal and ethical issues since the charity and not the contest organizers would be getting the money. It might be an excellent way to help a good charity.

But I have had a complete different idea. I’ve been thinking that good ideas really aren’t any good until someone really begins seriously advocating them. I am saying that essentially 100% of the value added of any idea is in the marketing of it. Good ideas need to be sold.


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