Berghel on the Wisdom of Online Crowds

This fall Hal Berghel asks, “What does our recent experience with social media say about the intelligence of crowds?” ([1], p. 100)**

In social psychology, we’ve been investigating the supposed “wisdom of crowds” for a long time.  But with the explosion of digital networked “social media”, the concept has become current.  (e.g., this, this, this, this, this, this, this, thus).  (The concept also has become tangled with other things (crowd funding, the gig economy, open source, maker spaces, even cultural diversity and blockchain technology; which aren’t actually the same thing at all.)

But, as Berghel notes, the original crowd wisdom research identified the circumstances in which “crowds” are intelligent and sometimes more intelligent that the individuals in the crowd.  As he discusses, it is far from clear that contemporary social media actually meet the criteria of these“crowds” that might be “wise”.   In fact, contemporary social media tend to demonstrate how crowds can be “unwise” (not to mention cruel).

Historically, “crowds” have been recognized long before social media.  The behavior of natural crowds has been described in many ways, notably as emotional and irrational.  At the same time, economists have examined how markets (which are similar to crowds) tend to make “decisions” which are optimal, even when any individual would not.

The contemporary internet “wisdom of the crowd” thinking is, in one sense, projecting the hypothetical collective wisdom of markets onto the hypothetical marketplace of ideas.  (I might also note a very Californian, new age-y optimism, eager to believe the virtue of “just doing it.”)

Berghel wants to us look at how different crowds work.  In particular, the classic “wisdom of the crowd” works primarily because the crowd is diverse, bringing a variety of knowledge and experience to the common problem.  However, many crowds are self-selecting and self-reinforcing.  They become herds***. 

How about Wikipedia, which is often taken as the great example of the wisdom of the Internet crowd?  It is truly impressive, at least by the standard metric of the Internet:  It’s not how well Wikipedia dances, it’s that Wikipedia dances at all.   The fact is that Wikipedia works best where the stakes are low (i.e., the topic is trivial) and the content is obvious (i.e., the information is trivial).  Beyond the trivial, Wikipedia is vulnerable to motivated selection and outright fabrication (if not simple errors). 

Indeed, Wikipedia highlights an important point about Internet crowds:  when contributors are global and anonymous, it is difficult to know what the interests of the contributors are—and they certainly have a wide variety of interests.  Including deception, manipulation, and obfuscation.

And, of course, Wikipedia dances at all because it has editors who oversee the product, and unilaterally act to overcome the most blatant abuses.  Without the editors, Wikipedia would have died twenty years ago, poisoned by propaganda and vandalism.

So there are a couple of points here. 

First of all, social media crowds are generally self-selecting, and their shared goal is usually telling and performing cultural stories, not the discovery of the truth.  These are not wise crowds, at least partly because they are not even trying to be wise.

Second, social media crowds are open to manipulation.  Whatever collective wisdom the group might be capable of is easily challenged by propaganda, deliberate disinformation, and tribal thinking.    These are not marketplaces of ideas, they are campaign rallies.

The upshot is, whatever social media are or do, they have little to do with the “wisdom of the crowd”.

This article is certainly timely.  In recent days, we have seen the Chief Twit define Twitter’s major role as to be a global “Town Square”, where everyone can speak.  Implied in this goal, is a notion that unlimited, world wide, free speech is a good way, perhaps the only way to discover the truth.

Whether this is a good or even reasonable goal, Berghel’s article should certainly lead us to question whether this kind of crowd will ever achieve that goal.

** I did a search for “Social media and the banality…” and I got… a lot of hits! There is a message in this result.

***Or swarms.  Or hives. Or mobs.  The number of terms we have for “non-wise crowds” suggests that they are common and cognitively salient.

  1. Hal Berghel, Social Media and the Banality of (Online) Crowds. Computer, 55 (11):100-105,  2022.

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