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How the Crowd Ruined Wisdom

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Just about every website and app these days uses crowdsourcing to magic up 'what's best' and this is a terrible mistake.

I started working with the internet in the 90s when there was a handful of 'web sites' (yes, it was two words then) and the few of us that were aware of the Internet, had explored them all.

I can't quite remember when it was but at some point we all started to talk about crowdsourcing; it must have been something to do with the book The Wisdom of Crowds written by James Suowiecki and published in 2004, which has resonated so well with business people and technologists that the wisdom of crowds has been elevated to a 'law' to be followed by all start-up entrepreneurs and technology product designers.

Law or not, it is fact that nearly all websites and apps that surface results find the answers to things by asking lots of people what they think. Even Google's search engine is effectively crowd-based.

Perhaps crowd theory is helped along by our almost universal belief in Western democratic values and simple crowdsourcing examples that seem to provide helpful answers, such as Amazon's 'people who brought this book, also purchased this'.

Democracy and book buying seem to work, so why do I believe there's too much crowd sourcing?
A couple of years ago I read Jaron Lanier's book, You Are Not a Gadget after randomly seeing him interviewed on BBC Newsnight. It wasn't a very polished interview and that's probably because Jaron is a self-proclaimed Californian Marxist, has a full head of dreadlocks and is unlikely to have had any media training. However as one of the Internet's founding fathers, he was peacefully working away on the early Internet in the 80's while the rest of us were playing Atari Pac Man.

His book is a great work, easily justifying a statue in downtown Palo Alto, and is propelled by the love of all things digital. Unusually for a modern-day guru, that love has nothing to do with money.

Jaron sees many of the approaches taken by technologists today as one dimensional and lacking in the ability to take a step back from the conventions followed by everybody else (we could call them the crowd). He intelligently argues that random crowds of strangers do not always choose the best options; however crowds can make great choices if the crowd is "directed or selected."

In The Wisdom of Crowds by James Suowiecki, the story of the ox being sold in the marketplace is often used to demonstrate crowd theory. People in the marketplace try to guess the ox's weight and eventually the correct weight is established after enough people are asked.

A common idea about why this works is that the mistakes various people make cancel each other out. A more important second idea is that each experienced farmer in the crowd has some underlying experience in guessing the weight of oxen. This second idea is mostly forgotten by today's crowdsourcing enthusiasts, who forget that the best people in the marketplace to guess the ox's weight would be a group of seasoned famers; not just any person passing by.

When you are ill, would you trust a crowd of random strangers to dispense the right medication or would you prefer a crowd of trained and experienced doctors? There's a reason why you should worry if your doctor looks stuff up on the Internet; the random crowd of strangers wrote most of it!

In another example, I've just returned from New York and on the plane I watched one of the films on the inflight entertainment. At the end of the film I was asked to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and told that this information would be used to help other passengers to choose films. Why would any thinking person choose a film based on the opinions of a bunch of jet-lagged strangers from all ages and intellectual ranges?

Now you know why the films are so bland at 30,000 feet.

In my own business I applied Jaron's wisdom. Scoopt is a mobile app that allows people to find great restaurants and other places recommended by their close friends. It's a 'selected' crowd. When a close friend recommends a place to eat that I know doesn't share my taste in dining, I'm able to ignore the recommendation because I know it won't be right for me.

UrbanSpoon, Trip Advisor, Yelp and Foursquare often show places that have many tens of positive reviews but ultimately, recommendations from people you don't know are a pointless gamble.
The most popular places are perhaps loved by the crowd; but are not necessarily loved by my crowd.

Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget is a breath of fresh air and contains countless other wisdoms for tech entrepreneurs - I highly recommend it.

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