21 May 2009

Does so-called "Crowd Sourcing" result in Mediocrity?

I've always been uneasy with the idea that large masses of people possess greater insight and wisdom than individuals. I understand that this concept plays to something deeply embedded in the American value system - a rejection of the concept of an "elite" and the celebration of the "common man."

I've worried that this deep tie to something so non-rational -- something so central to our national psyche - is blinding us to fundamental flaws in the concept.

Ironically, it was the reaction to the results of American Idol (a show, to be honest, which I don't watch) that suddenly illuminated the issues for me.
In my view, this American Idol result completely refutes James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, about how crowdsourced results always get it right. - Dean Takahashi
It's not just that people feel like the result was wrong - it's where they put the blame that is so interesting to me. Takahashi (being a tech writer) points at the voting system itself. Others blame themselves ("I should have voted", "Why did I only vote once?" "We have only ourselves to blame"). And finally, when watching Twitter trends today, you see tons of people blaming everyone else ("American TV watchers are idiots", "You people have no taste, how could you vote for Kris?" "Were any of you actually watching the damn show?!?").

All of this reminded me of my younger days. I spent a lot of time studying the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This resulted in a lot of supplementary study in the areas of Crowd Psychology and Collective Consciousness.

I think it's in these areas of study that I find the cause of my doubts in "crowd sourcing."

Crowd Psychology - and in particular theories like Emergent-Norm behaviors and Convergency Theory - exposes deep flaws in the idea that large masses of people are going to provide insights or wisdom that is different from or better than what you would get from individuals. In fact, many theorists would argue that crowds merely follow the lead of select individuals. Others, more concerns, argue that crowds inherently start to produce non-rational, "lowest common denominator" actions.

If you want to become really doubtful, you could even apply the thinkings of Herd Mentality theorists - where large group behaviors become heavily driven by a fear of "being cast out of the group." This is considered to lead to the sort of "Mob Behaviors" that were used as fear-mongering tactics by many politicians world wide for the last hundred plus years.

Fundamentally, I now think that large masses of people do not produce wisdom or insight. Large masses of people produce momentum and can be leveraged to create change. But the "spark" (a push to move the group in a direction - that moment of insight - or true wisdom) is almost always created by individuals.

Yeah... I know that TONS of people are going to disagree. Before you start shouting - I'd suggest you go and read a little about the topics. I could well be wrong here - but let's make sure we all know what we're talking about. I'd suggest reading Freud, Gustave Le Bon, Theodor Adorno, Ralph Turner and Elias Canetti on the subject.

Finally... a weird random thought...
Is the whole idea of the "wisdom of crowds" somehow also tied into the culture of computer science and technology? Are we somehow thinking of humans as meat processors - where more equals better faster deeper?

Update: Well.... another small issue with "crowdsourcing" - illustrated once again through American Idol. If someone involved in the set-up of the effort wishes to - it's far far too easy to "game" the system. Is this "crowd-washing" in that case?


At 4:00 PM, Blogger Adam Richardson said...

I don't have a citation at hand, but I believe that Surowiecki qualifies the wisdom to say that it is restricted to questions that have definitive answers. Selecting who *should* win American Idol would not fall into this category. (However, asking people the day before to predict who they think *will* win American Idol would probably give you a good answer...as that is a question with a definitive).

I don't think anyone that has been involved in large-scale surveys, focus groups, the Oscars or political elections would say that they are always the best means for deciding questions that have ambiguous answers.


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