The Paradox of the Wisdom of Crowds

by Dina on November 7, 2008 · 5 comments

in Blogs & Blogging,Social Media,Social Tools in Disasters

I rediscovered this TED talk by James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

James Surowiecki pinpoints the moment when social media became an equal player in the world of news-gathering: the 2005 tsunami, when YouTube video, blogs, IMs and txts carried the news — and preserved moving personal stories from the tragedy.

. Thanks to @gauravonomics for pointing to this on Twitter.

I remember in a post on my reflections I had referred to insect societies as a metaphor to describe the interdependence and decentralized approach we took with the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog. And had also stated there:

Today, I believe that no crisis on this scale or magnitude will ever be handled again without sms, blogs, and wikis. That social tools will become a natural extension of rapid adaptation to chaotic conditions.

James Surowiecki also talks of the dark sides of blogs and social networks – one of the dangers of spending a lot of time on the internet is that the more tightly linked we become to each other, the harder it is for each of us to remain independent. The network starts to shape your views – which has a lot of benefits, but the problem is that groups are only smart when the people in them are as independent as possible. This is the paradox of the Wisdom of Crowds – the danger of a circular mill. Surowiecki talks of a circular mill of death where ants march in a circle, thinking they are following the leader, but actually just going around and around until they all die. He states as an example, memes that emerge from the blogosphere.

As I observe the progression of social media, I do feel we are more than ever, grappling with this paradox. There is no doubt in my mind that the Wisdom of Crowds as Surowiecki describes it can be huge. It has been transformational for me personally and professionally.

However, what I’m also seeing is less jazz play and improv in the blogworld, as we did in the early days of conversational blogging. We read the same stuff, we link to the same stuff – we did that then too – but there’s so much blogging today that it’s becoming almost impossible to escape following the echo. The economics of the market has begun determining what we blog about. Communities and networks (like with the social media and PR blogger scenes), while helping professionals in the space form frameworks and value for clients, are making many of us shy away from truly independent thinking as we seek easy answers and smart ways to convince our Clients to ‘buy’. We’re very good at re-framing and recycling the same stuff and we’ve learnt to build and manage our Whuffie to market ourselves in a post-scarcity economy. And we’re looking for easy answers.

I look through my GoogleReader and I see only a few posts with interesting original thinking in them today. Or maybe the gates of attention are allowing very little to come in? Twitter has exposed me to a whole lot of new and interesting people and thinking, and has replaced my GoogleReader as my dashboard for the day. It’s definitely my hangout space today. But I am greedy and don’t want to lose the breadth of good stuff that comes through in my newsreader.

So how do we resolve this – adopt the good from our networks and yet break away from the circular mill?

Preoccupation with whuffie + easy answers = the circular mill of death?

It’s a trap I am falling into. I don’t really have a solution. Should I be following more people on Twitter – this scares me! How do I find more diversity today? That wow and magic and flow of serendipitous discovery in my early blogging days just isn’t happening enough today. In my view, what the Wisdom of Crowds should mean is a collection of individuals with independent thinking that is allowed to emerge and grow in the collective. We’ve got to guard against excessive averaging out, imitative behaviour and aggregation. I’m just going to keep looking for the mouse!

Bonus Link: Gaurav just did a post around his take on Crowdsourcing, Wikinomics and the Wisdom of Crowds.

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Change we need? | brants
December 2, 2008 at 11:31 pm
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 manuscrypts November 8, 2008 at 1:13 pm

i’d say that in the initial days of any system, everyone’s new and have a bunch of ideas… over a period of time, an additional crowd comes in, the quality that was the hallmark of the initial bunch is lacking in this crowd… the number of pioneers/thinkers would be a handful in this set, most are good followers.. nothing wrong with that, except it tends to create superstars… i keep saying this, how much does every follower actually take out from a guy kawasaki(he’s awesome, we’re not debating that) but its become almost mandatory to follow him and re-post everything he does… and he’s only one of the hundreds of superstars… now in 24 hours a day, how much absorption can one do, and then spew original thought?
the other snag is this social media thingie 😉 since there are no rules and every experience is a learning, it makes it everyone’s hunting ground.. yes, mine too.. 😀
on both parameters, its a bit like bollywood – hunt for the elusive formula, and once there’s a hit, make similar stuff… as for me, i’m hoping a multiplex effect soon happens on the web so that a ‘bheja fry’ or ‘johnny gaddar’ also get released every now and then… 🙂

2 Dina November 10, 2008 at 9:59 am

that’s a cool articulation of what I was trying to say in such a boring manner :):):) maaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!

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