Roots of Crowdsourcing – Notes on Collective Intelligence and Crowd Wisdom

Beehive by Georg Ragaz via Flickr

The concept of crowdsourcing is rooted in our theories and experiences of collective intelligence. Thomas W. Malone, the Director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence defines collective intelligence as

groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent.

Malone points out that collective intelligence has been around for a long time. The family unit, organizations and nation-states – all of these, are groups of people using collective intelligence to work together in a way that seems intelligent. Beehives and ant colonies are examples of insects working collectively to locate food which would seem intelligent, and at the very least, vital to their survival.1

The Internet itself is a form of collective intelligence. The search engine is a perfect example of how the Internet’s collective wisdom is aggregated. Take Google for example, its cornerstone innovation, PageRank,2 determines the importance of a webpage by calculating what other websites link to it (as well as other data). Of course, it is actual people doing the searches and linking to the websites. With that in mind, Google is one of the most sophisticated forms of collective intelligence in the world – you can type in any word or phrase and in roughly one-fourth of a second receive the most relevant search results.

However, there is a dark side of collective intelligence. Just as ant colonies can work collectively in a way that seems intelligent, they can also work collectively to their own detriment.

Professor Malone cautions us eloquently that

It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence. Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity. But in whatever form, either intelligence or stupidity, this collective behavior has existed for a long time.3

So on the one hand, we can do things collectively that are intelligent and amazing – like preventing polio or volunteering to lift communities left in shambles from natural disasters. But on the other hand, we could ‘follow the ant in front of us to our death’ as James Surowiecki illustrated in his 2005 TED talk:

If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.4

I’m sure we all could come up with our own examples of collective stupidity. Just this past week, I was walking around Boston with my sons and observed how people follow other people blindly through crosswalks, with cars coming, unbeknownst that they are inches from getting smacked by 5,000 pounds of steel. I’m guessing you have seen this too if you have walked around in a big city.

Another challenge to collective intelligence is our emotionality. Humans are known to act irrationally – maybe for love, compassion or pride. Surowiecki reminds us that humans have difficulty making consistently good decisions because of our emotional attachments and inability to make sophisticated cost-benefit calculations. As someone who has served in the U.S. Air Force, I can’t help but to think about warfare as a dichotomy of collective intelligence and collective stupidity.

Surowiecki offers one potential solution to collective intelligence’s dark side. He argues that “when our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often excellent”5 and “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them” – this is the Wisdom of Crowds.6

The Wisdom of Crowds assumes that groups do not have to consist of geniuses nor do people within a group need to be well-informed to reach a collectively wise decision. According to Surowiecki, if you ask 100 people to solve a problem “the average answer will often be at least as good as the answer of the smartest member” whereas if you ask them to run a 100-meter race, the average time will not be better than the time of the fastest runners.7 

The Wisdom of Crowds does not come from averaging ideas and solutions from the crowd but from aggregating them.

How do we aggregate ideas, then? What are the conditions that aggregate collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity? How do we use collective intelligence and crowd wisdom to enhance public participation? And how do we aggregate ideas to improve our communities and our worlds? That’s where crowdsourcing comes in.

Photo via Flickr (permission granted) by user gerag © 2008 All Rights Reserved

Notes ↓

1 Malone, Thomas W. 2006. “What is Collective Intelligence and What Will We Do About It?” Edited transcript of remarks at the official launch of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 13. Accessed January 16, 2013. http://cci.mit.edu/about/MaloneLaunchRemarks.html.

2 “PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.” Google. 2013. “Facts about Google and Competition.” Accessed January 17, 2013. http://www.google.com/competition/howgooglesearchworks.html.

3 Edge.org. 2013. “Collective Intelligence: A Conversation with Thomas W. Malone.” Accessed January 18, 2013. http://edge.org/conversation/collective-intelligence.

4 Surowiecki, James. 2005. “When Social Media Became News.” Presented at a TED Conference, Monterey, California, February. http://www.ted.com/talks/james_surowiecki_on_the_turning_point_for_social_media.html [play from 15:42]

5 Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations. New York: Doubleday, xiv.

6 Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds…, xiii.

7 Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds…, 11.

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