Social networks and the wisdom of crowds

"Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group."

There's a lot of buzz lately about the concept of social networking. You've got to admit the phrase is pretty silly. First off, it's redundant: Networks, by definition, are already social -- they connect humans. Plus, what's the opposite -- "antisocial networking"? Going online to tell everyone how much you hate them?

But despite the silly name, the basic concept is pretty exciting. It refers to the fact that networking technology is leading to all kinds of new and interesting ways for humans to interact. One of those is crowdsourcing -- the notion that people in the aggregate can provide more accurate information than individual experts.

The reasoning is that crowds can be self-correcting. If a large number of people are able to correct one another's errors -- whether made out of ignorance or bias -- the results will be overall more reliable than the output of any individual (or small group). The canonical example is Wikipedia, which is by pretty much any measure at least as accurate as a traditional encyclopedia, and considerably more timely. Another example is the reader reviews on Amazon.com.

So far, so good. I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia (as well as Amazon.com reviews). But we need to be aware of the limits of the wisdom of crowds. I'm reminded of the wonderful Robert Heinlein quote: "Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? ... Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too."

Replace "democracy" with "crowdsourcing" and "autocracy" with "individual expertise", and you see the problem precisely. OK, I'm just a tad biased. My livelihood depends on my perceived expertise (however real or not), so I'm naturally a bit reluctant to imagine that I could be replaced by an anonymous crowd.

But there's a bigger reason I'm skeptical of crowdsourcing. It's another social networking phenomenon called information cascading. Cascading refers to the demonstrated fact people often change their opinions based on those of others -- without having any better data.

Researchers Duncan Watts, Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds demonstrated this phenomenon in a study published last year in the journal Science. More than 14,000 participants registered at the Web site Music Lab and were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some participants saw only the names of bands and songs; others also saw how many times the songs had been previously downloaded.

The upshot? Bands that had been rated highly by previous participants were more likely to be rated highly by subsequent ones. As the researchers reported, "The impact of a listener's own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others."

Crowds, in other words, aren't quite as self-correcting as we'd like to believe. Once again, Heinlein put it well: "Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Johna Till Johnson

Network World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?