Wisdom of a crowd

Wisdom of a crowd

What one cannot accomplish on their own a crowd can do better.

Two heads are better than one, the more the merrier. That is the basis for a new crime drama on American television channel CBS, the teaser of Wisdom of the crowd’s pilot episode quickly gained momentum online shortly after it’s release. The show follows a technology innovator who creates an online platform that harnesses the power of crowd sourcing to find his daughter’s murderer. The trailer had the main protagonist explaining the idea of crowd sourcing: “There was a scientist, he asked 800 people to guess the weight of an award winning ox. No one could get it exactly right but when he averaged in all the answers they were dead on within a half of a pound. That’s the wisdom of a crowd.”

This is an actual theory and experiment observed by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. The theory of the wisdom in a crowd explains how collective wisdom is often more accurate than any singular mind. It does go on to include that collective wisdom is only available when each member of the crowd makes their decision individually. When individuals in the crowd are swayed by each other’s decisions then the accuracy of the guess could go off track due to the undermining effect of social influence.

The idea of crowd sourcing for information and talent is not new but it has been gaining rising popularity in recent years. Sites such as Fiverr have gained steady recognition as a platform to crowd source ideas, talents and works. Fiverr is a platform that allows individuals to sell their “talents” such as doing a voiceover or data compilation, or even professional advice for as low as 5USD with the option to add “express delivery charges” and “add on packages”. The idea that one could crowd source professional advice over the internet or sell their voice through a video seems ludicrous and yet it exists.

Putting it into local context we have our own site which relies heavily on crowd sourcing citizen journalism through the incentive of $50 reward. Started by and in affiliation to a large national publication it comes to no surprise this platform quickly became popular amongst readers. The idea of it is rather similar to the show, by crowd sourcing we have more eyes and mobile devices to keep track of things happening real-time around the country. The reputation of Stomp being a citizen-fuelled rule-breaking watchdog has quickly gone down the gutters in recent years. These days citizens are often misusing the power of shaming a person on a national platform to intimidate others who don’t fit their idea of “proper conduct” and perhaps for angering them.

“With great power comes great responsibility”, it seems rather fitting for a platform that gives users the ability to shame a person on a national platform. More often than not going viral for the wrong reasons these “reports” by citizen journalism can lead to the end of a career and ruin a life. Various examples have already been made of foreigners misbehaving in public and quickly losing their job within a day of the Stomp report going viral. As is its goal, having the possibility of being reported by any stranger walking by has trained citizens to watch their behaviour in public. Yes surely we have become a more “courteous” society from this brand of “citizen journalism”. With the rise of Stomp came the rise of citizens drunk on the power it gives them. “I’m going to stomp you” and “What if someone stomps you for it” have become common in everyday conversations. It seems “Stomp” has become a synonym for “public humiliation” and a weapon to power drunk “citizen journalists”. Originally meant to deter people from breaking the law, the reports now seems to depend on individual judgement of what’s right and wrong – something that typically is a grey zone.

Is crowd sourcing good or bad? As mentioned in Francis Galton’s observation it depends on the original pool of opinion, social influence can quickly change the accuracy of a guess. If there were one loud opinion that everyone gravitates towards the entire crowd would adopt the same opinion regardless if it’s good or bad. This seems rather terrifying in this day and age where everyone can publish their opinions on you online and social influence could change an entire crowd’s decision about you. Galton observed that should the group have a generally good initial judgement, social influence can refine rather than degrade the group’s collective decision. In such instance we can only hope for a larger group with better judgement in our society.

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