Are Crowds Wise? Engagement Over Reliance

Bruce Muirhead at Mindhive: “Crowdsourcing is developing into a mega-trend. It has begun an inexorable shift from the periphery to the mainstream of policy and problem solving methodology. We’ve heard countless times the virtue of crowds and the inherent advantages regarding access to knowledge, transparency, accountability and efficiency – yet all of these advantages rest on the simple assumption that the crowd is wise.

In the fast growing industry of crowdsourcing platforms and in society more generally we can see a growing acceptance by organisations and users alike that the crowds they are engaging with have some common failings. For instance, when addressing a specific problem there is need to consider and discount alternatives before a solution can be arrived at. In a crowd of one it is quite simple to assess the value of each competing solution and evaluate relative to these assessment the most appropriate response. Crowds are obviously not a homogenous grouping capable of relative comparison to the same degree an individual or small group can due to the fact they lack an objective set of priorities or objectives to evaluate them against. A diverse crowd from varied backgrounds will pull the preference of solution in many different directions, In the same way a machine with many moving parts is more likely to fail, a crowd with high levels of expertise, diversity of preference and variance of background is more likely to fail to reach consensus or compromise through logic and reasoning. This presents an interesting catch-22 as many crowdsourcing methodologies recommend involving a large number of varied opinions and backgrounds to enhance the originality and disruptiveness of a solution. However, such levels of disruption also imbalance the internal reasoning of the crowd and make it difficult to develop a nuanced, targeted solution to a challenge. Of course, organisations that seek to engage with crowds can mitigate these risks by developing clear objective standards of reference and outlining and priorities available to the crowd.

Additionally, in a year where the force of a crowd has propelled a man such as Donald Trump to a position that may feasible see him elected President of the United States – how can any argue that crowds are wise? Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy argues that such crowds act as such in a political context due a failing of trusting, in turn resulting from a failure of accountability. ….While crowds don’t always make wise choices, they are neither inherently wise nor unwise groups. There is doubtless intelligence in crowds – what we need to figure out and continue to develop is the process through which we can leverage it to develop more targeted solutions and involving the crowd more effectively….(More)”