The Limited Wisdom of Crowds

There has been much discussion around the “wisdom of crowds”, especially around sites like reddit and digg.  But there are a couple of flaws with this line of thinking:

  1. Half the people in the world are of below average intelligence.  When a crowd of idiots is making decisions, they are not always going to show great wisdom.  To extend this concept a little further, even if people in the crowd are not idiots, but are zealots, it can greatly influence the results that you see.  For instance, right now on the front page of reddit, there are three links to articles about RIAA injustices, five negative stories about George Bush, two stories about the alleged coverup of 9/11, and surprisingly, only one article on Ron Paul.  The reddit community, for whatever reason, tends to moderate up stories of these nature.  But what if a user DOESN’T CARE about these topics?  Sure they can hide that site from their results, but really, when I hide a link, I really want to do is muffle the community to be closer to MY views.  In other words, I wish reddit would not just show me what the most people had modded up (with minimal down mods); rather I wish that I could help define MY OWN crowd that would do the choosing for me.
  2. People tend to provide input only when they feel strongly about something.  Look at reviews on or ITunes.  Everything is either 4.5 stars or .5 stars.  There is no middle ground.  You cannot make rational decisions if the only voices being heard come from extreme positions (there probably is a follow on post about the presidential primaries for this point).
  3. You need a decent sized crowd for the crowd impact to really be felt.  Unless you have a very large set of preference data to pull from, or use very good methodologies to derive results (like how political polls work), finding the signal to noise ratio in the data is very, very low.


While it is interesting to look at where the masses are going, I think that we need to accept that accepting the wisdom of crowds over the wisdom of experts can only be applied in certain circumstances.  I do not see the crowd replacing the local food reporter, or for that matter, a good newspaper editor, anytime soon.

2 thoughts on “The Limited Wisdom of Crowds

  1. While, I fully support your concept. Isn’t there some research that says that for preference marketplaces, the zealots and ignorant are usually equaled out, invalidated, and marginalized?

  2. In a large enough marketplace, where many people make their choices known, probably. But look at customer reviews or news aggregation sites like digg/reddit/slashdot. The zealots seem to be more active in the community and are not canceled out.

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