Sum Up: If you’re trying to get wisdom out of a crowd, you have to set up the right interface.
There are a lot of stories like this. Set up examples of the Wisdom of Crowds without ever defining it correctly, then knock it down with examples of people being stupid. But the Wisdom of Crowds (WoC) does not mean that people in crowds are smart. Everyone who’s ever been stuck in traffic knows that’s not true.
Crowds are only wise when they’re given a specific task and a clear interface. The study Lehrer cites proves this: when subjects made individual choices and those choices were aggregated, the results were good. This is how WoC works: individual votes with aggregation. It’s also how the stock market and elections work.
The study goes on to show that when the subjects were given access to each other’s choices before voting, the results were worse. Again, no surprise here, because this is how WoC does not work. That’s also why we have laws against insider trading and protecting elections.
What this study proves is how important the interface is when attempting to set up a Wisdom of Crowds experiment. So if you’re trying to get a correct answer out of a group, you have to set it up correctly: you ask a specific question, everyone gets one vote, no one has access to other’s votes, the community has to be diverse, people have to feel invested in the outcome, etc. There’s actual science in this social science.
But very little socializing on the web is about determining an answer to a specific question. What we do on Facebook is not about creating wisdom - it’s about socializing with our peers, connecting to our personal network, and doing all the messy stuff we do when we’re not trying to be “wise.” Most online communication is not trying to determine the number of new immigrants living in Zurich, or anything remotely similar. It’s just about saying hi.
Imagine if we applied the same expectation to our face-to-face encounters. I chatted with three neighbors while walking my dogs today, and I still have no idea how many pennies there are in this jar! They’re all so stupid!
Sometimes being social is just about reminding ourselves that we’re not alone. Personally, that’s the only question I need answered.
To learn how WoC works, please read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. It’s probably the most important web design book ever written that’s not about web design at all. You can also read what I’ve written about the Wisdom of Crowds here.
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