The stupidity of crowds

James Surowiecki’s book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ (2004) argues that in many instances collective intelligence is more effective and accurate than that exhibited by individuals.  The concept is often used to explain the collaboration that created the Linux operating system and Wikipedia.

It’s a well documented and well supported argument that, like so many others, lends itseslf to corruption by others. In marketing, where the wrong end of the stick is so often grasped, ‘the wisdom of crowds’ has been taken to suggest that communities tend to be better creators and innovators than experts in corporations and the agencies that serve them. A manifestation of this is user generated content in advertising and marketing which has become increasingly popular yet produces, by and large, a vast pool of the average and banal and, now and again, the odd diamond in the rough. This of course can only imply that if you ask enough people one or two might get it right and anything but the notion that the crowd collobarated to a successful outcome.

The ‘stupidity of crowds’ is a far more sustainable notion. After all this is what gave us witch burning, the flat earth at the center of the universe, The Shawshank Redemption on Top 10 lists, and the desire to drill for oil in Alaska. It appears that populism and ignorance is at the sweet spot of the crowd’s contribution. Recognition of this theory is not exactly new albeit under the title of ‘The tyranny of the majority’. The phrase originated with Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835, 1840) and was further popularized by John Stuart Mill, who cites de Tocqueville, in On Liberty (1859).

Marketers have always watched the crowd. They see how it behaves, they see what they can do to adjust its behavior and present it with propositions to do just that. Technology has made crowd watching easier although the same can’t always be said of crowd pleasing. Our ability to influence the online conversation is lagging our ability to monitor it and it has created new challenges for marketers to sort signal from noise allowing strategic response as opposed to knee jerk reaction.

In tangential refrerence to this topic it’s worth reflecting on Network Neighbourhood Theory expounded many years ago at Bell Labs. Simply put the theory suggest that we behave most commonly with people with whom we communicate most. This is a tidy way of thinking about everything from replica sports uniforms to the parallel development of concepts in scientific communities. It also, helpfully, makes intuitive sense as it allows us to believe simultaneously in the primacy of experts and the stupidity of sheep.

Marketing benefits enormmously from the contributions of customers and  prospects but the ‘wisdom of crowds’ should not be basis on which to outsource innovation.

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