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What crowds are wise at

This article appears in the issue January 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 1]


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Meme used to mean something very specific. It came from chapter 11 of Richard Dawkins’ book on genetics, The Selfish Gene: "Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain ... "

When the term jumped kingdoms and took root in the world of the Internet, it still signified something fairly confined: an idea that had taken on a life of its own. "Meme" had indeed become a meme. But over time, it’s lost its original significance. Now the term means something like
"an Internet fad." It’s become sloppy and loose-edged. Richard Dawkins may or may not like what’s happened to his coinage, but he should. It’s a sign of the term’s success.

The same has happened to James Surowiecki’s phrase "the wisdom of crowds," which was the title of his 2004 book. Surowiecki meant something quite clearly defined by it: There are situations in which little bits of evidence from lots of people, when properly processed, create results more accurate and reliable than the estimates of experts. Surowiecki’s lead example is Francis Galton’s surprise that you get a closer estimate of the weight of an ox by averaging the guesses of people at a county fair than you do by relying on an expert at oxen.

Surowiecki’s book is quite methodical. He breaks the wisdom of crowds into three types. First, there are cognitive questions with precise answers, addressed by (for example) prediction markets. Second, there are issues of coordination, such as the way sidewalk traffic optimizes itself without any top-down plans, simply because each person acts in her own self-interest. Third, there are times when you want individuals to cooperate in ways that create mutual advantages by seeing beyond their own immediate interests, such as paying taxes.

In his book, Surowiecki carefully looks at the conditions for success of each of these three types. He is an economist and a careful thinker. But, the title of his book is so good that it quickly escaped him, just as the "meme" meme escaped from the godless hands of Richard Dawkins. (Note: "Godless" because Dawkins’ most recent book is an argument against God. So that wasn’t as random an aspersion as it may have seemed.)

The phrase "wisdom of the crowd" now seems to refer to anything a bunch of people can do better than people alone, especially once it gave birth to the term "crowd sourcing." Sites that let citizens report burned out streetlights are now examples of the wisdom of the crowd, as are sites that let citizens upload videos of their government representatives. At some point, I expect that Texas Hold’em sites will be put forward as examples of the wisdom of the crowd because they let good players succeed ... a type of wisdom of the crowd that joins it with Dawkins’ evolutionary sense of "meme."

The term is being stretched and pulled until it’s just about unrecognizable. That is, it’s succeeding.

But why? When a phrase gets noticed and then gets so widely applied, it’s because it—perhaps inadvertently—calls attention to a phenomenon that we want to be able to note and talk about. In this case, we seem to be eager to point out all the ways in which groups of people do better than individuals. It’s as if we have a case to make. Historically, we’d been told that individuals are the source of real value, that groups are at best suspect and at worst mere abstractions, that if you set individuals free they will automagically build a fair world.

We didn’t have to wait for the failure of deregulated markets and Alan Greenspan’s dismal apology to start recognizing that competitive individuals are not the answer to every problem. So, now we slap the "wisdom of the crowd" or "crowd sourcing" label on everything, as if to say: "Nope. You got your assumptions wrong. Get ’em right, and we can build the world’s greatest encyclopedia, replace network TV and find lost cufflinks." It’s not always true, but the challenge to our assumptions is just about always welcome and helpful.

If you want to see how eager we are to make that case and to challenge those assumptions, just look at all the places we are applying those "crowd"-based labels. The thinness to which we’ve stretched the term is a measure of how eager we are to show the power and value of connecting with one another.

And please note that taking the range of ways in which we’ve applied the term as evidence for a desire to connect is, yes, a type of crowd sourcing.


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