shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Kasparov vs. The World
10/21/1999
 
It was going to be acres of good PR. After the success of Garry Kasparov's chess 
matchup with IBM's Deep Blue, Microsoft wanted to host another computerized chess 
match this summer -- Kasparov vs. The World. The setup was simple: Kasparov, the 
John Henry of the Information Age, would play white, posting a move every other day 
on the Microsoft chess BBS. "The World" consisted of four teenage chess experts who 
would analyze the game and recommend counter-moves, which would also be posted on the 
BBS. Chess aficionados from around the world could then log in and vote for which of 
the four moves Black should play. This had everything Microsoft could want -- community, 
celebrity, online collaboration, and lots of "Microsoft hosts The World!" press releases. 
This "experts recommend, The World votes" method worked better than anybody dared hope, 
resulting in surprisingly challenging chess and the ascension of one of The World's 
experts, Irina Krush, into chess stardom. Things were going well up until last week, 
when Microsoft missed a crucial piece of email and the good PR began to hiss out of the 
event like helium from a leaky balloon.  

While Deep Blue was a lone computer, here Kasparov's opponent was to be the chess 
community itself, a kind of strategic "group mind." Since communication was the glue 
that held the community together, it's fitting that the game came unglued after a missed 
email. During last week's end game, it was generally agreed that The World had made a 
serious tactical error in move 52, but that there was still the possibility of a draw. 
Then, on October 13th, Ms. Krush's recommendation for move 58 was delayed by mail server 
problems, problems compounded by a further delay in posting the information on the 
Microsoft server. Without Ms. Krush's input, an inferior move was suggested and accepted, 
making it obvious that despite the rhetoric of collaboration, the game had become Kasparov 
v. Krush with Kibbitzing by The World. Deprived of Ms. Krush's strategic vision, the game 
was doomed. The World responded to this communication breakdown by collective hari kari, 
with 66% of the team voting for a suicidal move. Facing the possibility of headlines like 
"The World Resigns from Microsoft," the corporate titan rejected the people's move and 
substituted one of its own. The World, not surprisingly, reacted badly.

Within hours of Microsoft's reneging on the vote, a protest movement was launched, 
including press releases, coordinating web sites, and even a counter-BBS which archived 
articles from the Microsoft chess server before they expired. Microsoft had run afoul of 
the first rule of online PR: On the internet, there is no practical difference between 
"community" and "media"; anyone with an email address is a media outlet, a tiny media 
outlet to be sure, but still part of the continuum. Since online communities and online 
media outlets use the same tools -- web sites, mailing lists, BBS's -- the border between 
"community interest" and "news" is far easier to cross. The Microsoft story took less 
than a week to go from the complaints of a few passionate members of the chess community 
to a story on the BBC.

Microsoft made the same famously bad bet that sidelined Prodigy: By giving The World a 
forum for expressing itself, it assumed that The World's gratitude would prevent criticism 
of its host, should anything go wrong. As Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say, "That trick 
never works." What started as a way to follow on IBM's success with Deep Blue has become 
a more informative comparison than even Microsoft knew. Two computerized chess games 
against the World Champion -- one meant to display the power of computation, the other 
the power of community -- and the lesson is this: While computers sometimes behave the 
way you want them to, communities never do. Or, as the Microsoft PR person put it after 
the game ended: "Live by the internet, die by the internet." 


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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source