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The "Dumbness of Crowds"


Community. Wisdom of Crowds. Collective Intelligence. The new emphasis on net-enabled collaboration is all goodness and light until somebody gets an eye I poked out. Is it merely a coincidence that Apple, run by (as James Gosling put it) "a dictator with good taste" leads the way in tech design, while risk-averse companies using design-by-committee (or consensus) are churning out bland, me-too, incremental tweaks to existing products? And if that's true about companies, why do we think consensus will work on an even larger scale with "users" in Web 2.0?

Jaron Lanier, in his controversial Edge essay Digital Maoism, has a great quote:

"In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people..."

All geeks-and-personal-hygiene-jokes aside, we need the smell. And the most frustrating part for me is how the "Wisdom of Crowds" idea has been twisted and abused to mean virtually the opposite of what New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki says in the book of the same name. He opened a talk at ETech telling us that while ants become smarter as the number of collaborators increases, humans become dumber. In what is potentially the most misleading book/idea title in the history of the world, the "Crowds" in "The Wisdom of Crowds" was never meant to mean "mobs", "groups acting as one", "committees", "consensus" or even "high collaboration".

By "crowd,", I think he meant "more people", sure, but he also defined a big ol' set of constraints for how much togetherness people can have before the results became dumber. And it turns out, not that much. By "crowd", he was referring to a collection of individuals. Individuals whose independent knowledge (and "independent" is a key word in what makes the crowd "smart") is aggregated in some way, not smushed into one amorphous Consensus Result.

Web 2.0 and putting the Community in Control
One of the high-profile concepts of the Web 2.0 meme is community. Giving community the control. Letting the community make decisions. Trusting the community. And--if you're a lucky bubble-2.0er--letting the community do all the work while you collect the money. But this idea of consensus-community is not at all what I've heard Tim O'Reilly talk about when he uses the phrase, "harnessing collective intelligence" or when he describes Web 2.0 as something whose value to users grows with the number of users.

What's the difference between Collective Intelligence and Dumbness of Crowds? A few examples:

"Collective intelligence" is a pile of people writing Amazon book reviews.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is a pile of people collaborating on a wiki to collectively author a book.
(Not that there aren't exceptions, but that's just what they are--rare exceptions for things like reference books. I'm extremely skeptical that a group will produce even a remotely decent novel, for example. Most fiction suffers even with just two authors.)

"Collective Intelligence" is all the photos on Flickr, taken by individuals on their own, and the new ideas created from that pool of photos (and the API).

"Dumbness of Crowds" is expecting a group of people to create and edit a photo together.

"Collective Intelligence" is about getting input and ideas from many different people and perspectives.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough.
(It's not always the averaging that's the problem it's the blindly part)

"Collective Intelligence" is about the community on Threadless, voting and discussing t-shirts designed by individuals.

"Dumbness of Crowds" would be expecting the Threadless community to actually design the t-shirts together as a group.

Art isn't made by committee.

Great design isn't made by consensus.

True wisdom isn't captured from a crowd.

At least not when the crowd is acting as a single entity. Clearly there IS wisdom in the many as long as you don't "poison" the crowd by forcing them to agree (voting doesn't mean agreeing). According to Surowiecki, even just sharing too much of your own specialized knowledge with others in the group is enough to taint the wisdom and dumb-down the group.

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

Imagine a community--let's say the Dog Lover's Society--that through a genetic breakthrough is given the chance to design the perfect dog. Everyone gets to contribute. Everyone's idea counts. The dog will be the perfect reflection of the wisdom of the dog-loving crowd. What will they come up with?


I see two options:
1) A non-descript Generic Dog--the average of every possible dog attribute. It would look something like the abstract DOG used in pre-school books where you teach two-year olds to "point to the DOGGY"
2) Frankendog--a hideous patchwork of dog parts that were never meant to go together. It would look something like a Star Trek transporter accident.

Of course most of what I've been dissing is the popular, rampant misinterpretation of Wisdom of Crowds, not what Surowiecki actually meant. Read the book and you'll see just how significant and powerful the aggregation of individual knowledge really is, and how in the right circumstances with the right constraints, the wisdom found in that group CAN be smarter than the smartest individual in the group. But he never says the group itself becomes smarter when they work together to produce a result as a group.

20Q - a perfect example of the real Wisdom of Crowds

If you're one of the twelve people who haven't yet played with the 20Q "toy", you have no idea how scarily well this thing "guesses" what you're thinking about. The creepy thing isn't necessarily that it figures out you were thinking of thermometer, bra, microscope, painting, mp3 player, or lightbulb (all things it guessed correctly for me yesterday). The really creepy thing is how it got there from the questions it asked. Although the program clearly changes questions based on your answer to the previous questions, it doesn't change them nearly as much as you'd think it would need to.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear it's using voice recognition to cheat. But no, it turns out there's a perfect explanation for its supernatural accuracy. The creator harnessed collective intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of people "taught" the program over a period of years, by playing software versions of his game. The program uses a neural net, and learned. It learned so well, in fact, that it learned a few dumb things. For example, way too many people think a dolphin is a fish, so even if you say "yes" when asked by the device if what you're thinking of is a fish, it can still figure out you mean dolphin from other cues. (Apparently it also thinks human beings may not actually be animals, based on the "collective intelligence" of those who've played the online version.)

Finally, while I disagree with much of what Jaron talks about in his essay, I know how damn smart this guy is (we were on a panel together a long time ago at the Junos in Canada). A few of my favorite quotes:
"Meanwhile, an individual best achieves optimal stupidity on those rare occasions when one is both given substantial powers and insulated from the results of his or her actions.
"If the above criteria have any merit, then there is an unfortunate convergence. The setup for the most stupid collective is also the setup for the most stupid individuals.
"Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals. These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes."

No matter what, I believe that in our quest to exploit the "We" in Web, we must not sacrifice the "I" in Internet.

Posted by Kathy on January 2, 2007 | Permalink


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Nice post, Kathy! This made me think of two books:

"Blue Ocean Strategy" by Kim & Mauborgne, which advocates leaving the red oceans of mass "wisdom" for the blue oceans of edgy but uncontested space. Great book.

Meanwhile, there IS a novel written by a collection of very accomplished writers: "Naked Came the Manatee". Dave Barry must have penned the title, and he wrote the first chapter, then a host of other well-known writers took turns with succeeding chapters. It was bizarre, but fun to see how it twisted with each new author's hand (and voice).

As for that 20Q toy, I thought it was just scamming me when it said, after about 12 questions, "I'm going to win" -- and damned if it didn't guess correctly (soccer ball).

Posted by: John Windsor | Jan 2, 2007 9:32:55 PM

By the way, just in case it's not obvious... I concocted this whole long and rambling post just so I could show off the new chart I just learned how to make -- that radar-looking thing at the top (I think they're called 'spider' charts). DeltaGraph rocks.

John: Blue Ocean Strategy is one of my all-time favorite books for sure. And I do think there will be novelty and 'artistic' projects that use multiple authors (I think the surrealists used to do that for fun), but those will be special exceptions. Even non-fiction tech books often suffer from having multiple authors. The only solutions for this are to strip the writing of any voice at all so you don't have franken-chapters, or for a single editor to do a lot of work to give it "a single voice" (some gifted editors can do this quite well, but I have no idea how).

And yeah, the 20Q "attitude" is really annoying, but the thing really does scare me sometimes.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 2, 2007 9:42:31 PM

Great post Kathy. I think this trend is a bit like the period just before the bubble 1.0 burst, when everyone was convinced that community could solve every problem, but few knew the real work it took to really make it happen.

It is a shame that the wisdom of crowds has been co-opted as you describe. I think it was Chris Anderson in The Long Tail that said that the key point is that the WoC works as long as each person is working in their own self-interest and not the interests of the group. I think about this when I tag my photos on Flickr - I do it for myself - my own interests, but my interests also roll-up into value for the community.

Posted by: Lee LeFever | Jan 2, 2007 11:52:22 PM

Great article, it coveres exactly the feeling I have with some of the so much liked web 2.0-thingy's. After the community is done, you keep the most boring and safe stuff around - while the most cool and needy things are lost in 'translation'.

On the other hand u might need to ask yourself: isn't this dumbness of crowds exactly what many people do all day long? Adopting to the value's, meaning and opinion of others? It's propably very 'human' to just concensus things out and accepting the middle of the road-leftovers :-)

Posted by: Nigel | Jan 3, 2007 2:48:05 AM

Great post (and very nice spider graphs too!)

I particularly like this quote -"an individual best achieves optimal stupidity on those rare occasions when one is both given substantial powers and insulated from the results of his or her actions" -yet another reason why the quantitative pre-testing of advertising is fatally flawed.

Posted by: Jason Lonsdale | Jan 3, 2007 4:02:36 AM

I haven't read the rest of the article yet, but great first sentence about getting an "I" poked out! :)

Posted by: Keith Handy | Jan 3, 2007 4:35:06 AM


An interesting and challenging post, as usual.

As a Brit who lives in Europe and who has worked all over the world, I see the 'we' in the wisdom of the crowd vs. the 'I' in individual or Internet as very much a cultural thing.

Geert Hofstede's work on 'cultural dimensions' identifies five core dimensions through which to look at national or company cultures. It should be no surprise that the USA comes out very strongly on one of the dimensions, 'individualism' compared to say Japan, Germany, or much of the rest of the world. See http://www.geert-hofstede.com/geert_hofstede_resources.shtml for more details.

People from highly individualistic cultures often challenge the value of collective action due to their inherent cultural biases. The same happens in reverse in colective cultures of course, albeit to a lesser extent.

The real challenge, as you point out, is in identifying how to make collective intelligence through collaboration work better. Surowiecki's book is a good start. The Center for Collaborative Organisations at the Uni of North Texas' workbooks are much better. But making collaboration work in individualistic cultures is difficult. Witness the general failure of TQM in the 1980s.

Graham Hill

PS. Rather than Apple, which is a relatively unimportant company in the larger scale of things, perhaps you should have contrasted the failure of individualistic companies like GM and Ford with the success of collective companies like Toyota.

Posted by: Graham Hill | Jan 3, 2007 4:50:37 AM

This must be one of the best things written about Web 2.0 I've seen. Your "collective intelligence is about..." vs. "dumbness of crowds..." contrasts are right on the money.

Posted by: Larry Sanger | Jan 3, 2007 6:28:50 AM

Sometimes a rant is inevitable! Good summary of the REAL wisdom of crowds, and the necessary constraints that enable it. I get pretty frustrated with people who don't know the facts passing judgement on what can be a very useful idea. Thanks for saying it well!

Posted by: Robert Hruzek | Jan 3, 2007 6:46:02 AM

Forget the dog. Let's use a real life example.

If all the members of the Perl Lover's Society got together to design a programming language... what would you get?


Posted by: Daniel Berger | Jan 3, 2007 8:03:31 AM

I would have to disagree with Graham; the failure of companies like GM has more to do, I think, with the attempt to follow the "crowd"--whereas when they were directed by strong individuals such as Lee Iacocca, they were saved from a more premature failure.

I wrote about it in my blog, but this post reminded me of the way it feels to work with various types of theatre groups. My preference is the "Director-as-Dictator" model; where there is a good design team, a lot of different ideas brought to the table, but that energy is harnessed and focused by the Director, who (along with great power) also has ultimate responsibility.

This is contrasted with groups I've worked with that try to work by "consensus"--which, aside from taking forever, tends to dilute and soften the focus of a performance idea, until everyone (or, more often, no one) is pleased, but all can get by with the result.

The "insulated from consequences" rule applies inversely here: if there is a bad review, the director faces those consequences, where as the collective always can point the finger at someone else.

Just my opinion.

Posted by: Gray | Jan 3, 2007 8:44:22 AM

Similarly, we always hinge between the safety of the group and the awareness of the individual, the crowd scene in Borat is a perfect example of that ballence


in the beginning, the collective is at work, and very quickly the individual is triggered. I didn't tag the whole thing, but by the end, they return to a booing mob.... We are playing with something delicate and dangerous to say the least.

Posted by: Grendly | Jan 3, 2007 9:18:34 AM

It appears there is an important difference between what one averages out of the crowd and what emerges from the crowd.

Posted by: Fregni | Jan 3, 2007 9:49:48 AM

I love your blog. You keep on putting out great content. Keep it coming. Your blog generates compelling conversations.


Posted by: John Furrier | Jan 3, 2007 10:51:45 AM

You're right on, Kathy. The most under-appreciated part of Suroweiki's book is the notion of independence.

There's also another under-appreciated notion, that of aggregation at scale. When you aggregate many *independent* things, say millions of them, the result is actually much more rich than one initially assumes.

Many folks look at a technology like tagging, for example, and say that all sorts of meaning will be lost because tagging isn't comprehensive. That is, because there is no rule saying that you have to use all the NY tags (like NewYork, NewYorkCity, NY, BigApple, and everything in between) when we tag something, that there will be holes in the completeness of our data set.

But what scale gives us is the ability to include so many independent actions that *if it is important to someone it will be in the system*. It might not be what everyone does, but it will be there. So, if you aggregate all the tags, it will be clear which ones refer to New York and which ones don't, because of the small but many overlaps between what people do.

This is a long way of saying that I think independence and aggregation at scale are the two most under-appreciated notions of the networked world.

Posted by: Joshua Porter | Jan 3, 2007 11:14:23 AM

These are interesting and valid points, Kathy, that raise a fundamental question.

Crowds have already accomplished incredible things - some of which I would have sworn were well outside a crowds capabilities. Wikipedia is the prototypical example, there are many others.

I'm convinced that the arguments you present here mean that we still have a lot to learn about how crowds do optimal work - but that we still haven't tapped into their true power.

And now the question: How can we use the objections you raise here to improve the wisdom of crowds in areaas where it doesn't work well today, rather than give up on it?

In my opionion, crowds are still in their infancy, and have still to do their greatest works. And yes, that makes me a true believer :o)

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Jan 3, 2007 11:33:29 AM

I'm glad someone finally said what I've been thinking for a while.

It's truly scary the number of start-ups that have been created based upon misunderstanding this idea.

You only have to look at mainstream media of any form to see that the lowest common denominator is what's most popular.

Posted by: engtech | Jan 3, 2007 11:36:09 AM

Based on my experience at University, it is clear that there is an optimum size for a group based on a given task.

Want to write something? Two. One to write, one to edit.

Want to devise a plan of some consequence? Two to four--the folks available with the most personally vested in the outcome of the plan. Anything above that extends the time required and will not increase, and will likely decrease, the intelligence of the plan.

The *definition* of time wasted is a bunch of academics sitting around a table at a regular time. Its called a faculty meeting.

Getting things done in Academia
a guide for graduate students

Posted by: Mike Kaspari | Jan 3, 2007 12:20:32 PM

the book I thought of was East of Eden...

"Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man."

Posted by: ed | Jan 3, 2007 12:49:02 PM

see "painting by numbers"

Posted by: yow | Jan 3, 2007 1:17:58 PM

Coincidentally, I read this: http://www.culturecult.com/sandall_dec06.htm not half an hour ago. Broader and more antisocial in context perhaps, but...


Posted by: Melle | Jan 3, 2007 1:33:51 PM

Your posts are the best ones I read.

Posted by: tamimat | Jan 3, 2007 2:23:11 PM

Killer post, just amazing

Posted by: Jeremiah Owyang | Jan 3, 2007 2:31:49 PM

Hey Kathy,

Great post, but I am failing to follow one of your points. You write "Giving community the control" as one of the concepts of Web 2.0, and then follow with "if you're a lucky bubble-2.0er letting the community do all tho work".

With the big 2.0ers like myspace and flickr for example, I don't see how the community is in control.
One the contrary, I see those communities as a decentralized, scattered "herd" and suffering from lack of control. It is exactly this decentralization that gives the bubble2.0er the opportunity to collect the money.

Your refinement of the "wisdom of the crowds" concept made me think of open-source projects.
In many ways, open source is *the* model that predated Web 2.0. Open source projects existed, collaborated and shared collective wisdom long before the Web 2.0 days. I think that it is exactly their ability to exert control, and act as a unified community, and keep the control out of commercial hands, that made the projects so successful.

Posted by: Yoni | Jan 3, 2007 3:02:34 PM

A couple of years ago, watching "The Apprentice", I noticed a similar trend. There was the Male group and the Female group. The male group picked a leader, collected ideas, and one person made a decision. The female group collected ideas and then tried to get "Consensus". The males kept winning the challenges.

Individuals bring a lot to the party. They increase the breadth of available ideas. The leader (if he is good), collects the idea, and chooses the one with the most merit. Trying to get everyone to agree on what is the right choice is a waste of time.

Posted by: brad tittle | Jan 3, 2007 3:23:30 PM

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