The stupidity of crowds
They say that two heads are better than one. But you tell that to someone caught in two minds! And while many hands make light work, too many cooks spoil the broth. It seems we are, broadly speaking, confused about how a multiplicity of inputs relates to the quality of outputs. I’d like to help untangle things.
Crowdsourcing became a big thing during the early days of social media. Once it was a great deal of work to solicit inputs from thousands of people but when Facebook and Twitter came along it became easy. Perhaps a little too easy. It also became trendy. This is where the real problems begin.
Things people don’t really care about
Lesson one: don’t ask for ideas unless you’re ready to use them, no matter how silly.
Boaty McBoatface. That was the name chosen by the British public when asked to name a new scientific research vessel in April 2016. And of course, it was. It’s funny! You see, when you ask a lot of people for input on a topic that is not that important to them you’ll get a great deal of silly inputs.
The problem with this is that it leaves you in a spot of bother. You’ve asked people to help you and they have donated their time in their thousands. What do you do if you don’t like the answer they have provided? In this case, Boaty McBoatface became the name of a submersible drone attached to the actual research ship which was given the more sensible name of The Sir David Attenborough. This was a nice move. But it so easily could have ended up as a major embarrassment. Speaking of which…
Things people care a lot about but don’t understand
Lesson two: don’t ask people to make decisions they are not qualified to make.
Also in 2016, we asked the same British public to crowdsource our nation’s economic and political future. We were, apparently, sick of experts telling us what to do and we’d decided to leave it to Joe Public to figure out if we were better or worse off inside the European Union.
The Wisdom of Crowds theory is built on the idea that large numbers of people making a decision will tend to make a better one than small numbers. But this only applies to the idea of guessing at a variable. Ask a thousand people how many airports there are in the USA and the average answer is likely to be closer to the truth than if you ask only ten.
On the other hand, asking a large number of people to make a YES/NO decision on something they scarcely comprehend is like having a hundred school children who have just finished dissecting a frog collectively decide the best way to handle a triple bypass operation. That is to say, when the question requires expertise to answer, widening the circle reduces the collective wisdom of the group. This is one element of what I call the Stupidity of Crowds.
Democracy has many wonderful elements but smart people who design constitutions and systems of government tend to be aware that you need a bureaucracy in place to moderate the impact of bad decisions by the voting public. We may get upset at how slowly government works but that is exactly the point; friction here decreases the opportunity for people to do things, things with far-reaching impacts, on a whim. Sadly, when you bypass the bureaucracy with a plebiscite you can end up with problems. Such as now, for example, political “leaders” in the UK are bound by popular demand to enact policies that they genuinely believe will harm their constituents. How maddening is that?
The triviality of the suggestion box
In a previous life, I ran various crowdsourcing activities within a large corporate. We had a social media platform and we invited members of staff to contribute ideas for things we should change and we let them vote on those ideas. Would you like to know what the most popular, most frequently suggested idea was?
In our global address list, we had surnames first, followed by given names. So I appeared as Rees, Aran. And apparently, this is what people most wanted us to change. Every week or so someone would suggest this and every time it garnered hundreds of votes.
This change was so trivial yet it seemed to matter to people. Or, at least, it mattered to a lot of people who seemed not to have much else to worry about.
What this tells us is that crowdsourcing, while democratic, is no guarantee of quality. It isn’t that people are not capable of coming up with good ideas but rather that coming up with good ideas takes effort. Further to that, realising that an idea is good takes even more effort.
Do you suppose that, if put to a public vote, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity would have been popular? It defied what people understood and I am sure, had it come to a public vote, it would have been dismissed as nonsense. Which is precisely why we don’t determine scientific facts by democratic means.
Now consider the really excellent ideas that you would love to crowdsource. Do you suppose that someone taking five minutes to respond to a survey and someone else taking ten seconds to vote is likely to result in deeply thought out insights? In fact, crowdsourcing in this way usually leads to shallow ideas and lots of them.
The language barrier
One of the problems with asking people questions is that we are, generally, pretty bad at giving rational answers. Or, to put it the other way, we don’t think much before we speak. In a recent example, two polls asked a question about extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds.
One poll asked the following question:
“Should the voting age be lowered to sixteen?”
The second poll asked:
“Should sixteen and seventeen-year-olds be allowed to vote?”
Both of these questions are logically identical. But it will not surprise you to know that each elicited very different results.
When asked if the voting age should be lowered 57% said no. When asked if 16 and 17-year-olds should have the right to vote, 61% said yes.
When you ask people a question it is easy to assume that the answer will be reasonable. But consider this: how can you be sure that the phrasing of your question has not swayed the audience one way or the other? This evidence should make us all wary of relying too much on the crowd.
This activity is driven by one of the things that most often kills creativity: insecurityClick To Tweet
Death by consensus
Beyond the standard crowdsourcing world, you have something I call Death by Consensus. This is actually not a problem born from people wanting too many other people’s opinions because but it is only possible in a culture that believes that more is always better when it comes to inputs.
This is a tactic used by people in large, risk-averse businesses designed to ensure that if things go wrong the blame can be spread nice and thin.
It begins with an idea. That idea is then shared by email with everyone in the team, then paraded around a hundred different committees and talking shops, commented on, updated, commented on again, and then shared again. And then again. The person in charge, if challenged, will say that it’s important to get “buy in” and to have varied “inputs” but the truth is that this activity is driven by one of the things that most often kills creativity: insecurity.
Before I get on to the good stuff, here’s a quick list of things never to do.
- Never ask people to contribute to naming things. This never works because either you end up in a Boaty McBoatface situation or you waste hours of your life fielding terrible ideas before settling on the one that everyone agrees is least-offensive. It’s a bad use of your time.
- Never let people give constructive criticism of an early draft of a creative work. If something is really creative then most people won’t have the first clue if you are doing well or doing badly. But that won’t stop them commenting. Which means you have to spend your time dealing with their comments and then their resentment over the fact you didn’t use any of their “great ideas”.
- Never ask a broad question to a large group. Broad questions require deep thinking and if you want wide input then this is the best way to not get it. People don’t have time to answer your broad question so they won’t. And the ones who do have time? You have to ask yourself if the people with that much time to spare are really the best minds in the world.
The dignity of difference
So far it’s all been a little bleak, hasn’t it? Well, here we come to the positives. This is where people are useful. You see, the best thing about people is that they are all different. They may not be qualified to comment on your work, but they can certainly comment on how your work relates to their lives.
This is part of the basis for the idea of the Minimum Viable Product. If you can put something into people’s hands and observe how they use it then you have real, powerful information. So instead of asking questions, run experiments.
People are bad at imagining how a new product or service will impact their lives. The more inventive the product or service the worse people are at seeing the potential. So don’t ask them questions they can’t answer and instead offer them the chance to take part in the process by letting them get their hands on some form of the Minimum Viable Product and see how they use it.
Not all opinions are equal, but all personal experiences are. So next time you want to get the crowd involved, don’t ask them a question, give them a chance to play.
The more inventive the product or service the worse people are at seeing the potentialClick To Tweet
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