Social media: is the crowd really wise?

Note this post was appended to on 23 April 2013

Recently a phrase I hadn’t heard for a while has popped into my “life stream” again. (By which I mean I’ve heard it a few times recently). It is “the wisdom of the crowd” and it refers (usually) to the way that online forums and social media allows many people to share “wisdom”. Often this will be where one person can ask a question and get several answers with the best one normally floating to the top via some kind of peer review. This review will be a function of the interface or quite often just indicated by contributors saying “I agree with them”.

But are crowds really all that wise?

You can buy these posters from

There has existed for some time a series of de-motivator posters which are intended to be a humourous counter to the often cheesy motivation posters that once (and maybe still) adorned office walls. One of my favourites is the one to the right. The caption reads “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups”. Sometimes the wisdom of the crowd is not only found to be lacking but that lack is amplified by being within a crowd. A good example of this, as others have said, is the Facebook cartoon picture chain.

Someone – nobody knows who but best guess is that it started in Greece in November – started a chain by suggesting everyone on Facebook change their profile picture to a cartoon character from their childhood. Not only was this bringing a warm glow of nostalgia to Facebook but – the chain said – it was supporting the NSPCC in its campaign against child abuse. Of course the problem was that not only did NSPCC have no idea about this but that simply changing your picture in no way supported their cause. Many, including myself, advocated also donating to NSPCC. And yet the “wisdom of the crowd” meant that people were copying the status text verbatim and changing their picture without stopping to think if or how this was going to help stop child abuse.

Skip forward a few days and a second chain began going around. This one decried the first chain claiming that the people behind it were in fact a paedophile ring and that this was confirmed on “Tonight’s news”. No link or reference was given to the news item or even which night it was on. And yet again the “wisdom of the crowd” meant people began copying this new status verbatim and swiftly removing their cartoon profile pictures. Once it gained enough traction it was picked up by the Daily Mail and the circle was complete.

Update 24 April 2013

Another good example of the lack of wisdom in crowds was exhibited following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Thousands took to the web to find information about the tragedy and more specifically about any suspects or leads. This resulted in two amazing errors.

So I ask again are crowds all that wise?

All is not lost

To be honest that’s a rhetorical question. The answer is to be found just a day or so later. Despairing as others have at the speed at which particularly the latter chain propagated I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of comments appearing against the “it’s all run by paedophiles” status updates. Suddenly people were asking pertinent questions: “Which news program was this on?”, “Did you actually see it?” for example. Others suggested using well known hoax websites such as Others highlighted the tell-tale signs that both of the chains were probably not founded on any real truth. Slowly, much slower than the original chains though, the wisdom of the crowd is percolating through.

So it seems the crowd can be wise if you give it time. Perhaps the issue is how fast we expect the online — and thus the offline — world to move these days. Instant updates on our mobiles, feeds to our laptop, netbooks, desktops and tablets all drive us towards a dangerous tendency to knee jerk reactions. Even those of us who would consider ourselves above falling for such urban legends could still do with applying some patience before we fly off on a rant about other well-meaning souls. I lose track of how often I have seen (and sometimes joined in) the ridiculing of Facebook users by those on Twitter. And yet Twitter has it’s own variety of such chains. Every now and then you’ll see a flurry of auto tweets from some wunder-app which promises convenience and delivers annoyance. “I’ve found the greatest…” the tweets start and sometime later are followed by “Remove that app – it’s a spambot” or similar.

The truth is that crowds — like the people they consist of — have both wisdom and foolishness, common sense and little sense and can be incredibly annoying and uplifting. Often these things occur shortly after each other or even simultaneously. People, whether on their own or in a crowd are remarkable things and the world is frequently both better off and worse off for having them in it. “People” is also a term that includes me, in all my stupidity and (somewhat rarer) wisdom. I would like to apologise to anyone I have upset or offended with any outburst or ill-thought out flippant remark. I should remember that I everyone is still learning (and that includes me) and that my time would be better spent trying to help rather than ranting.

So here’s the idea: why don’t we all start taking a moment to wait, reflect and consider before posting any tweet, facebook status update, blog post or even opening our mouths. For the Christians among us it is worth noting that patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Wisdom is not in that list.