James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, wrote about what was right and wrong about Reddit’s crowdsourced hunt for the Boston bombing suspects.
The truth is that if Reddit is actually interested in using the power of its crowd to help the authorities, it needs to dramatically rethink its approach, because the process it used to try to find the bombers wasn’t actually tapping the wisdom of crowds at all — at least not as I would define that wisdom. For a crowd to be smart, the people in it need to be not only diverse in their perspectives but also, relatively speaking, independent of each other. In other words, you need people to be thinking for themselves, rather than following the lead of those around them.
When the book came out in 2004, I wrote a short post that summarizes the four main conditions you need for a wise crowd. What’s striking about most social media and software, as Surowiecki notes in the case of Reddit, is how most of these conditions are not satisfied. There’s little diversity and independence: Twitter and Facebook mostly show you people who are like you and things your social group is into. And social media is becoming ever more centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Pinterest, etc. instead of a decentralized network of independent blogs. In fact, the nature of social media is to be centralized, peer-dependent, and homogeneous because that’s how people naturally group themselves together. It’s a wonder the social media crowd ever gets anything right.