The Wisdom of Us
Right now I am reading The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, which turns on its head the assumption that a group of people is only as smart as its smartest member. Actually, group decisions generally outperform the decisions of individual group members. This is a good thing: it means that even if individual voters are as uninformed as the media always tells us they are, collectively their decisions can be valid.
My favorite anecdote from the book is right at the beginning and concerns Francis Galton, a prominent scientist and one of the first proponents of eugenics, the practice of selective breeding to improve the human species, an idea which was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s until it became associated with Nazism. Galton was at a livestock exhibition when he observed a competition to guess the weight of an ox. Around 800 guesses were submitted, from farmers and butchers as well as lay people who would have no idea how much an ox weighed. Galton collected the guesses because, “the average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,” and Galton was interested in showing that the average voter knew very little. However, he discovered that while not one guesser was very close to the actual weight of the ox, collectively, the group did very well—the average of all the guesses was 1,197 pounds and the ox actually weighed 1,198 pounds.
Galton's impromptu experiment is now performed routinely with jars of jellybeans and classrooms full of college students with similar results. Google's search engine works on the wisdom of crowds—web pages are ranked partly on how well they are linked with the rest of the web. Essentially, a link to a page is like a vote for that page, with votes from pages that already have a lot of votes counting more. Google calculates all the votes to decide how important a page is to your search. And it does a pretty good job.
This is fascinating to me because of the recent explosion of social media online, which I researched in depth recently for a marketing class. To gain a bit of perspective, I tried to read The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, in which Andrew Keen argues that user-generated content online is, yes, “killing our culture.” I argue just the opposite—when ordinary people have a voice online, they use it to check out independent bands and buy goods from fair trade craftspeople and read posts by Iranian protesters and watch the Star Wars Kid, with every click demanding a culture that is no longer cookie cutter. Where once “cultural gatekeepers” got to pick and choose what content we would be exposed to, now we are deciding for ourselves. The democratic nature of social media is precisely what has companies and marketers so concerned—for years they have been able to simply tell us what to buy, but now that we are involved in the conversation they are scrambling to figure out how to connect with us in a genuine way.
Check out the Social Media Revolution on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8. And of course PulseWire's amazing collection of members from around the world is part of this. I'm so glad to hear from all of you!