Tuesday, July 29, 2008

News Flash: Crowds Are Not Always Wise

There's been some hand-wringing this morning over the much-touted "wisdom of crowds":

When the 'wisdom of crowds' turns on itself: IMDB edition
I'm not going to quibble with the basic premise of the piece. "The Godfather" is most likely a superior movie to "The Dark Knight," though each film will have their proponents and detractors. What irritates me is the claim that the wisdom of crowds somehow broke down here. I've been seeing this a lot lately, and most of these pronouncements seem to be coming from people who don't know what the phrase properly means.

"The wisdom of crowds" isn't just a modern buzz-phrase, it's also a book that's well worth reading.

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait.

Back already? Great. Now you've read the book and you know what the phrase properly means. You know that it doesn't imply that every time you get a large number of people together, they will inevitably and magically arrive at the correct solution to a problem. Crowds are not wise in that fashion, nor have they ever been so wise; if that were the case, then the best available candidate would be elected to office in every single election -- national, state, or local -- throughout this great country. In fact, crowds make mistakes quite often, which is why we have the term "mob" to refer to those moments when collective crowd judgment is at its worst.

Now that you've read the book, you know that a crowd is "wise" only under specific conditions:
  1. First, it is a crowd of non-experts. Experts are too likely to think alike on a topic, and so collectively are unlikely to find the unexpected solution.

  2. Second, it is a crowd of people who are not in contact with each other. People in contact discuss things and arrive at common conclusions. In the process they cease to be a crowd and become more like a mob. Only a failure to communicate ensures that they will act independently, which is essential to the aggregate of their collective actions showing the wisdom of crowds.

  3. Third, it is a crowd of people who have something at stake. People voting on a trivial topic act erratically. They need to have some skin in the game: a prize they're hoping to win, or a valuable that they're afraid of losing, otherwise their actions are less likely to be meaningful.
So let's go back to the example at hand: people voting up "The Dark Knight" and voting down "The Godfather." Does anyone believe that these are the actions of a multitude of individuals acting alone? Far from it -- no doubt there are any number of internet demagogues rallying the troops and sending them off to the IMDB to stuff the ballot on one side or the other. Do they have enough at stake to ensure they are not acting at random? They do not. In short, this crowd cannot be wise because it is not a crowd, it is a mob.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing like controversy to whip people up and get them online. Mobs that are actively engaged with your community site can be better than well-ordered crowds that only occasionally show up in your traffic logs. Unless, of course, your site is built around the expectation that collective action will produce valuable insight into a topic, in which case you should go back, re-read the book, and build a site that caters to the crowd rather than the mob.