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What Wisdom Of What Crowds?



By Neil Seeman

It is almost 10 years (2004) since journalist James Surowiecki first described the “wisdom of the crowds.” It was one heck of a powerful idea. It is demonstrably true that 100 people who do not know each other — or, say 10 bankers with independent voices — will reach a conclusion that is more predictive, or more accurate, than just one. Surowiecki used the famous example of the crowd at a county fair accurately guessing the weight of an ox.

Here’s the problem today: Mr. Surowiecki made his trenchant observation prior to the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter and “social filtering”; today, online, we increasingly do not reach any wisdom of any independently-minded crowds. We speak to our friends.

The overwhelming bias of the Internet is English; social media platforms are skewed young; self-broadcasting (aka self-promotion) is the norm — as opposed to authentic dialogue; ‘bots’ and spam metastasize daily; marketers overwhelm you with pitches; fraudsters chase you down to help them with spurious ‘bank loans’ and ‘wealth management’ schemes; there are hundreds of thousands of fake social media accounts; and so on and so forth.

Social media filtering often yields irrational choices — what the Greeks called akrasia — over what foods to eat, or over what songs to like. There are endless examples: Why do rational people who know the calories-in/calories out rule put on weight when social friends on Facebook are overweight (as documented by Harvard researchers Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler)? Why does great music such as the genius of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (featured in the documentary Waiting for Sugar Man) — despite the hype of social media — fail to break through to the masses and remain local and hidden in one country?

Plato and Socrates would turn in their graves if they learned that the wisdom of the social crowds, what the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius called the Whole, denies us our reason. People who really care about the wisdom of the crowds — engaging the real crowds who don’t care for social media, or who don’t come out to advocate for reform to healthcare policy because they are busy or sick or caring for the sick — need to think beyond “clicking” and sifting through “likes” and “shares” to gain insights that matter.

Only a tiny subset of a subset of a subset uses Twitter or Facebook or any other social media platform to engage in social change. Mining these data for insight — so-called social media analytics — does not “engage the unengaged”; quite the opposite. It mines the opinions of ‘power users’ who use popular tools like Thunderclap to scream their wisdom about what causes are worthy of people’s support versus others. (“Thunderclap amplifies your message with the power of the crowd” — kind of like a press release on steroids).

Have no doubt: Social media has tweeted revolutions; it celebrates an ethos of citizen empowerment and openness that transcends politics and partisanship. But to glean insight into the opinions of the real crowds, we need online and offline tools to engage the unengaged and move them to social action. “Clicking” on Facebook to save the life of a child in the poorest regions of the world, language that seeps in to pricey corporate social responsibility campaigns online, encourages clicktivism and slacktivism. For any important issue, such as electoral reform, clicking on a petition or ‘liking’ a YouTube clip doesn’t cut it.

As Atul Gawande writes, “In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to the major difficulties of the world — hunger, disease, poverty.”

To end poverty, or to measure interventions for disease in Africa that work to save lives, social media won’t solve all our problems. Get out there and ask the silent majority. Ask the real crowds. It just takes a little more ingenuity. It is more laborious than a click.


Reprinted with permission of the author from the Huffington Post

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7 responses to “What Wisdom Of What Crowds?

  1. Powerful thoughts. Thanks Neil.
    Maybe mobile device penetration across the world will help obtain better the access to “the Whole”.
    P.S I will add your view to my Linkedin stream and add to the noise! 🙂

  2. My key takeaway – social media does not provide a representative sample, no matter how loosely we want to define representative. A lot of Big Data and loyalty card data have the same problem. Doesn’t mean that those sources can’t provide useful information, but we need to recognize the bias in the sample. And Galton never said crowds were smarter, just that an informed independent crowd tending to have a normal distribution around the correct answer 🙂

  3. Hello Neil,

    I liked this article but the premiss is not accurate. The social science behind the Wisdom of Crowds (to which Suroweicki does a nice job highlighting) is very powerful and has decades of academic research behind it.

    In order for the Crowd to be smarter than a few experts, 4 conditions MUST be met:
    (1) Diversity of opinion (e.g., each person should have some private information meaning they can form their own opinion
    (2) Independence (e.g., one’s opinion is NOT determined by those around them)
    (3) Decentralization (e.g., people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge)
    (4) Aggregation (e.g., some mechanism exist for turning private judgments into a collective action)

    The problem with most Web 2.0 platforms – particularly most popular social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google +, etc is they violate the Independence Principle – #2 above. If this is violated, ALL results are biased, skewed, and therefore the crowd WILL NOT and cannot not be smarter than anyone else.

    Yes, Mr. Surowiecki wrote his book in the pre-social web. However, if any of the 4 principles outlined above are violated, it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever where opinions are collected (web or not)- they still be not be accurate.

  4. How incredibly refreshing. The subject matter was very interesting and the comments actually drew on traditional criticism for suggesting social medias would not be a good platform for CW. The comment: ‘Only a tiny subset of a subset of a subset uses Twitter or Facebook or any other social media platform to engage in social change’ was music to my ears. keep it up Leonard we will soon be agreeing on things (that is if you keep moving my way)

  5. “In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions ”

    Lenny sounds like that mobile research revolution I keep hearing about. And Mike I suddenly don’t feel so all alone!

    A very interesting and insightful blog Neil. It goes to a question I have been trying to get recognized for a long time – just how different are mobile survey participants? Are they like the crowds above, not really representative of the mass?

    Now I agree it may not always be the case that we want the mass, so those criticisms presented by Daniel Ladik may not be entirely relevant for marketing (nevertheless brilliant, I promise to steal them!). For example early adopters may be the crowd we are targeting. But for any general category user sample drawing from social media sources and mobile opt-ins may be risking serious biases in sample representation.

    This is the area where I have major concerns about the rush to mobile.

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