Monday, June 28, 2010

Some challenges to the Wisdom of Crowds

Two books to get you started on the idea that groups of otherwise unconnected people can accomplish amazing things: Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, and J. Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. As a quick example, the computer language Linux was essentially written by programmers who didn't even necessarily know each other, but contributed as much and as often as they desired to create a part of the whole.

So "crowdsourcing" is becoming a cool idea. Have a problem? Post about it on an appropriate web site, and let the vast masses out there offer solutions. Often times, you'll get a pretty good result.

This can go overboard though. As an example, when Allen Greenspan was head of the Federal Reserve, he deferred to "the Market" as being smarter than he was. He thought that there should be little regulation of the Market because the communal mindset was always smarter than any other input. Well, we know how that worked out.

Another problem is that a crowd is not a collection of people who mind-meld and then become a smarter unit. Instead, crowds often turn into mobs, or unthinking masses that follow one another over the edge.

What this shows is that yes, the crowd can create amazing things like Linux. And yes, the crowd can turn ugly and instead destroy things. Basic rules and boundaries are required. The group Anonymous, for example, took on the Church of Scientology. At first they just randomly did things to annoy the church. But then they decided on a few basic ground rules; nothing illegal, protest monthly, wear masks to keep anonymity, etc. With these basic rules, people who never knew each other magically began effective protests and actions against Scientology that have continued for 2 years now.

So yes, I believe in the Wisdom of Crowds. But only if there are rational basic rules laid down for the action that is proposed.