The Internet has proved to be a democratizing force, harnessing the power of community to help the everyman research topics of interest, find a new book that's right up his alley, and even learn to be a better investor.

Take Wikipedia, for example, where users pool their collective expertise and help police content, resulting in an encyclopedia with more breadth, depth, and nimbleness than old-fashioned, print-anchored Britannica could hope to build. Companies that cull user recommendations and reviews such as Digg and even (NASDAQ:AMZN) seek to capitalize from the same spirit.

No crowd control in alternative energy
Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner, on other hand, is most interested in using community to help us all become better investors. Last February, he tried an experiment -- tasking Motley Fool Rule Breakers members to help select the service's next two stock picks. The only parameters: nominees had to be working in the field of alternative energy. That's because David believes alternative energy is a disruptive technology on the brink of a 10-year bull-market run.

That's not a belief that's difficult to substantiate.

Is it getting hot in here?
As this year has worn on, there's been increasing attention to climate change and the idea that it's time for both consumers and corporations to act. (As I was writing this, I ran across a Wall Street Journal article saying the first half of 2006 has been the warmest in the United States since recording began more than a century ago, and Newsweek's cover recently featured a family that looked like they had just gotten back from vacation at the Emerald City, heralding a special section on going green in America.) The buzz is getting louder.

Need more indicators than changing consumer attitude and media headlines? President Bush chastised Americans' "addiction" to oil in the spring. Big oil companies are increasingly looking to hedge their bets by investing in alternative energy plays. BP (NYSE:BP) is a prime example, having doubled its investments in alternative energy and forming a unit dedicated its low-carbon power activities. Venture capital was also at a four-year high in the second quarter of this year, and one of the industries benefiting was energy -- with increased investment in alternative energy start-ups.

So why didn't David pick the stocks himself? Because although he had identified a wide market opportunity, he was hoping others could help him hone in on the best technology in the vast field.

The merits of the masses
And the experiment was a success. The community bubbled up a fascinating number of investing ideas and generated a windfall of interesting and thought-provoking discussions on the topic. The members ultimately decided on one stock and one exchange-traded fund (ETF), PowerSharesWilderHill Clean Energy (AMEX:PBW). The fund offers a diversified way to benefit from some of the brightest stars in the alternative, renewable energy universe, instead of concentrating funds on smaller firms with uncertain paths to profitability.

Another benefit is that many of the companies that were nominated are actually held by this fund, including Evergreen Solar (NASDAQ:ESLR), Energy Conversion Devices (NASDAQ:ENER), Ballard Power (NASDAQ:BLDP), and Zoltek (NASDAQ:ZOLT).

The Foolish conclusion
Although the WilderHill ETF is down about 12% since the community singled it out for investment, David Gardner remains confident in its potential. And the Rule Breakers community is actively following alternative energy companies as they stand out. (In addition to the stock recommended in the April 2006 issue, another company that was highlighted during the exercise was recommended in the June 2006 issue.)

The power of community is particularly important in growth investing, which requires novel methods to analyze the potential of stocks in nascent sectors. Why? Because great growth stocks often cannot be analyzed using traditional metrics like P/Es or DCFs. Instead, we look for companies on the verge of breakthroughs that will reshape their industries -- and the more eyes we have looking out for the next great growth stocks, the stronger our likelihood of success.

The Rule Breakers community is more than 10,000 strong, representing a vibrant collection of ideas, interested in not only alternative energy but also nanotechnology, biotech, robotics, and other exciting new technologies. Join the crowd free for 30 days -- and you, too, can be part of community-powered ideas in growth investing.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.