Wisdom Of The Crowd Or Idiocy Of The Crowd?

Last night I attended a presentation by Tom Purves entitled How “Augmented Reality” and the Mobile Web Changes Everything. One part that stood out for me, and really got me thinking, was the issue of how applications can leverage the “wisdom of the crowds” rather than being the victim of the “joke of the crowds.

Joke of the crowds?

Purves was referring to the potential for serious events to get sabotaged by Internet memes – such as the Greenpeace contest to name a humpback whale which ended up with 78% of people voting for the name Mr Splashypants. Other examples include the naming of a treadmill on the international space station after Stephen Colbert and the skittles website fiasco.

The bottom line seems to be – when significant numbers of people get involved in something with no restrictions, there is the potential for the wisdom of crowds to sink to the idiocy of crowds. Just check out the comments on an average CBC.ca or Globe and Mail story, or a YouTube video, to see this in action.

Purves’ solution, with which I tend to agree, is that organizations need to design their initiatives to funnel people into valuable action rather than allow them unrestricted freedom.

For example, rather than offer a widespread list of potential names for a naming contest, run some initial screening and narrow the potential winners down to responses that are acceptable.

Some mainstream outlets have started to move towards this angle by allowing people to vote comments up or down. Others are playing with ways to reward appropriate behaviour by allowing enhanced access to additional content for people who participate “correctly.”

The bottom line seems to be, if your organization is looking to participate in social media, you need to set parameters. At a base level these can consist of a set of social media policies and guidelines to set the foundation for social media engagement by the organization. At a more advanced level, organizations need to design and develop social media programs to support constructive interactions rather than destructive ones.

What do you think?

  • Good post and thoughts, Dave. I think the key is, empowering the people that have a vested interest in the initiative that they are participating in. Asking ‘everyone’ to help with a company-specific initiative, for example, isn’t as beneficial as asking your customers and evangelists, that are more familiar with it and what you want to accomplish, etc.

    But I agree with you, some thinking should be given to putting parameters in place so that results can be more valuable.

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  • Dave, an insightful post this AM! I tend to agree with Purves, especially if a company wants action that is measureable against a plan.

    For the Online Media Boot Camp we offered three free tickets and had strict guidelines around winning. The main reason was because if we didn’t we thought a popularity contest might erupt and that’s not what we wanted. If we were a larger conference, crowd souring free ticket winners could have been a fiasco. In this case, it went smoothly, was fun and I believe we ended up with three very worthy ticket winners.

    That said, I think there will always be cases where companies would want unfettered crowdsourcing. But, that should be determined when planning (so the consequences are understood).

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  • Wired ran a great article recently that talked about how some of the bigger blogs manage trolls and the different opinions.

    http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/17-04/st_thompson

    Definitely something worth looking at because I think the potential is great but also the comment box tends to attract the most fanatical and irrational, especially in political discussions.

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  • In some cases, the crowds aren’t even crowds, as seen in this story about a Time poll. (Time denies it was hacked, by the way.)

    http://musicmachinery.com/2009/04/15/inside-the-precision-hack/

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