Crowds Really Aren’t Smarter

But you can mine good ideas from them.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the web is the idea of “The Wisdom of Crowds.” The concept was the subject of a book of the same name by James Surowiecki, which has been misinterpreted by many social media experts to mean that crowds – or groups of people – are better suited to decision making and getting things done more than individuals. This “mob rules” mentality, however, was not exactly Surowiecki’s message.

A really, really dumb crowd.

A really, really dumb crowd.

Surowiecki’s concept is (italics mine): “Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” One of these “right circumstances” happens to be many forms of social media. But more on that later.

Surwiecki’s theory is that individuals in a crowd are often smarter than one lone person. For example, the “Ask the Audience” feature on the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” – where the contestant let’s the audience vote on which answer out of four choices is the correct one – has a success rate of about 91 percent while the lifeline for the contestant’s “expert” is merely right about 60 percent of the time.

But it is important to recognize the distinction here. The crowd is not acting collectively to come up with the right answer. There is no collaboration taking place. A crowd of individuals simply votes separately on which of the four answers they believe is right. There are members of the crowd who choose the wrong answer, but in the circumstances of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” the majority — or the aggregate of the whole — generally select the correct answer (and keep in mind that ultimately, the contestant needs to make the final decision).

This lack of collaboration is a crucial component of Surwiecki’s theory – and the one most often overlooked. It’s the foundation of group projects that have worked – like Wikipedia. The encyclopedia entries of Wikipedia aren’t written by a group – but by an individual. It is then edited by multiple people – all of them adding details and additional facts. There’s no way that Wikipedia would works if you forced 100 people into a room and forced them to collaborate in order to come up with an entry.

This is why Surwiecki’s theory of the wisdom of crowds includes four rules for success. A wise crowd needs:

  • Diversity of opinion
  • Independence of members from one another
  • Decentralization
  • A method for aggregating opinions

(We might add that by including these conditions Surwiecki is conveniently able to ignore the plethora of examples of crowds being really stupid: lynch mobs, religious death cults, terrorist groups, the Nazi Party, the KKK, soccer riots, tribal genocide, Jonas Brother fans, and the countless times panicked crowds stampeded and killed or harmed other people.)

Smarter than the average crowd?

Smarter than the average crowd?

This, of course, means that the wisdom of crowds isn’t about group-think or decision making by committee. Surwiecki isn’t advocating mob rules – or suggesting that business should replace leadership with voting machines. Anyone working in PR understands the laborious agony of trying to write a press release within a group. The language becomes flat, wooden, and riddled with buzzwords and cliches. Writing done by an expert is always better than writing done by a group.

But writing, design and other creative pursuits are ill-suited for crowd-sourcing. All are better done by individuals. What the web allows for, however, is a perfect way to tap into those areas where crowds can generate good results. That’s because the web – by its nature – automatically adds in Surwiecki’s four necessary factors.

  • The web is diverse because of its size and because its a true crowd – more audience of individuals than group.
  • Most people on the web come from different geographies and congregate virtually. You can’t get more independent than that.
  • The web is the definition of decentralized.
  • The technology underpinnings of the web also make it easy to aggregate data (just ask Google).

So the web is perfect for soliciting opinions and ideas – because its easy to reject the bad ones and even easier to cherry-pick the good ones. It’s also a great way to float theories or ideas for new products and concepts. That way the group can pick holes in it – add components, reject others, and help solidify the idea or concept or product. This is crowd wisdom at its best. If a crowd rejects your new interface – well, that’s probably because it isn’t very good.

But handing over product development to a crowd is not a good idea nor is letting a crowd design your next mobile phone pad. Soliciting opinions when you have a prototype? That’s when crowds can help.

Another misconception of the wisdom of crowds has been the idea that expertise is dead. That group thinking is better than expertise. Not quite.

In fact, social media expert Jason Calacancis argues that the definition of Web 3.0 is adding a layer of individual expertise to user-generated content. In other words, regulating and monitoring the content created by crowds. “Web 3.0 throttles the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ from turning into the ‘madness of the mobs’ we’ve seen all to often, by balancing it with a respect of experts,” Calacancis writes.

Expertise is crucial and, I’d argue, of more value in the long run than crowd-sourcing. But experts aren’t always right and crowds can demonstrate wisdom – if regulated and tapped under the right circumstances.

In other words, crowds can be smart. But they can also be stupid.

Just like individuals.

2 Responses to “Crowds Really Aren’t Smarter”

  1. George,

    This is a great read – thanks!

    I learned a lot from this blog post. Intelligent distinctions are made that can be applied to improving overall marketing performance.

  2. Thanks, Tom!

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