The collective intelligence of crowds: myth or reality?

Posted by Ryan Davies on Aug 1, 2008 | Tagged as:

Harnessing the creative power and “wisdom of crowds” is a concept that has been around since the mid-90s, but it`s only over the last two years or so that it`s gained popularity among online marketers. The term “wisdom of crowds” was popularised by author James Surowiecki, who wrote a book by the same name. Basically, it means that there is more to be gained from collective intelligence than individual thinking. According to Surowiecki, the age-old adage “two heads are better than one” has more than an element of truth to it.

In keeping with the term-coining tradition that has been established online, the wisdom of crowds has been simplified to “crowdsourcing”, which basically entails “user-centred innovation”. According to Eric von Hippel, the concept requires the active participation of consumers in the design and approval of products designed to meet specific needs, which were originally also defined by consumers. Because consumers play a constructive role in the creation of new products, everyone benefits. In theory.
But just how wise are crowds really? There are countless studies that show when large numbers of people get together to work on a project, or discuss ideas, or work for any common purpose, they resort to “groupthink”. Groupthink is a concept that was first identified by Irving Janis, and refers to the tendency of groups to think within the box, and to shout down creativity and innovation in favour of unanimity and consensus.

Strong individuals take control and act in the “best interests” of the group. To protect the group from ridicule and embarrassment, they zero in on a few safe ideas early in the process and refuse to consider any alternatives. Rather than making good decisions or coming up with constructive ideas, groups suffering from groupthink tend to make irrational decisions and to demonstrate obtuse thinking. Think of lynch mobs or rioters, or even juries; people don`t really think very clearly in these groups, instead they get swept up in the momentum of the moment and very bad things happen.
But you needn`t look at such dramatic examples to see the contradiction in the wisdom of crowds. All you need to do is look at the popularity of television programmes like Jackass, or singers like Avril Lavigne; clearly crowds aren`t demonstrating any wisdom when they tune into these mindless and inane personalities.

Kathy, from the blog, headrush, says that Surowiecki`s idea of the wisdom of crowds has been twisted to mean almost the opposite of what he originally meant. She cites a talk that he gave at ETech, where he said that ants become smarter as their numbers increase, but that humans actually become dumber. Kathy believes that Surowiecki never meant his wisdom of crowds to refer to “groups acting as one” or “committees” or “high collaboration”, but rather to “a collection of individuals” acting within a set of constraints. These individuals leverage their unique knowledge in a constructive manner and not in a way intended to generate consensus.

While Kathy is occasionally amusing (“The new emphasis on net-enabled collaboration is all goodness and light until somebody gets an I out”) and occasionally lecturing (“No matter what, I believe that in our quest to exploit the “We” in Web, we must not sacrifice the “I” in Internet”), and while she bemoans the inability to tell the difference between “collective intelligence” and the “dumbness of crowds”, she makes some very salient points. For instance, she says that the differences in individual knowledge is vital to make the wisdom of crowds work. She also says that art isn`t made by committee, great design isn`t made by consensus and true wisdom isn`t captured by a crowd.

But online and offline companies are turning a blind eye to all the side-effects of collective wisdom and are focussing on the rosy aspects. They cling to the belief that an untrained and inexperienced group are capable of making better decisions than industry professionals.

But, having said that, I must say this: there are many benefits to be gained from enabling consumers to voice their opinions, express their needs and play a pivotal role in the outcome of products. After all, they are the people who will be buying the product; they have their best interests at heart. It also caters to the net-generation, who were born with their hands on a mouse, and who demand input and interaction. As John Butler, creative director of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners says, “It’s a smarter way to mass-produce things, getting them in the hands of people who want them, customising products to meet individual consumer needs …”

It should just be remembered that those who participate in crowdsourcing campaigns don`t necessarily reflect the needs and desires of the general population. Those who are active participants and who readily speak out can very rarely claim to speak on behalf of the silent masses. Companies shouldn`t base their production projects solely on crowdsourcing, but should combine them with market research, surveys, trend analysis and all the things that they`ve been doing ‘til now. Crowdsourcing should complement and not comprise marketing campaigns.

Hey Google, where`s that free data you promised!?
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