by Esther Schindler

When the wisdom of the crowd becomes the stupidity of the mob

Aug 09, 20074 mins
Enterprise Applications

I’ve been online since long before online was cool. Yet, despite my appreciation of online communities, I feel as though I’m suffering from a social networking disease.

This discomfort has been growing. Nearly every day, I’m invited to become someone’s buddy on yet another social network: twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, Xing… and that was just this morning. I’m glad to be connected to so many people (200 at last count on LinkedIn), but face it… there’s just so much I have to say to anybody. There’s just so many “cool sites” that I want to share on link-exchange sites (such as reddit, fark, and digg)—except of course for articles, which are always worthy of mention, but which rarely reach those sites’ home page.

However, Dharmesh Shah posted an insightful message on his OnStartups blog, Lamenting the Loss of Reddit, which made me pound my desk with my fist in agreement:

…I’m saddened when I look at the front page of reddit and what is popular there. It seems that the system has been overtaken by articles on the political, the weird and the arcane (and sometimes all three). I could post some of the links on the front page here to make my point, but it’s subjective. Go see for yourself. As a result of this deterioration of quality, I find myself going to reddit much less often than I used to.

I’m not sure what caused the downward trend. In fact, it may not even be a downward trend (that’s subjective). Perhaps what’s popular on reddit now simply reflects what’s going on within the user base. It’s just not for me. . . .Perhaps the trend was inevitable as more and more people joined reddit and became a diffuse audience instead of a clustered community of like-minded people. I don’t know.

The essential problem with reddit, digg, and other linkful sites is that they forget how quickly “the wisdom of the crowd” can turn into “the idiocy of the masses.” Historically, crowds are pretty dumb. That’s a big problem with the whole premise… which is why teams can work only up to some certain size, and then they become mobs. With mob-like behavior.

The obvious reference is Sturgeon’s law: 90% of everything is crap. And certainly it applies to this as to everything else.

However, the situation reminds me less of Sturgeon than of another SF author: John Brunner. Brunner’s Shockwave Rider is ordinarily cited for its invention of the Internet and of viruses and worms, but he also introduced the Delphi Oracle. Its premise is that with a large enough group of people, who are “plugged into the culture,” you can ask questions that few of them consciously know or remember, such as how many people died in the influenza epidemic.

Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, yearbooks and statistical returns.

It’s rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.

Eventually, the story demonstrates the flaw in the Oracle (I’m not going to give any spoilers—read the book yourself). But it appears that all of these linkful networks are formed on the expectation that together we all know what’s going on.

Except we don’t. When I first started looking at (and posting to) these services, I described them to friends as “links to stuff that made you say Hmmmm or That’s Interesting or Oh Boy.” As Shah described, though, it’s now mostly politics or topics that generate an emotional knee-jerk. Maybe that represents the average experience of the Internet citizen, but I’ve never counted myself as average.

Nor do others. In response, I’m seeing more sites that are “reddit for developers” (such as, or “social content for business geeks” ( or “startup news” (ycombinator). (And I’d sure like to know about more such niche sites.) Each of these goes back the very elemental function of online community: like minds sharing information. People who share certain interests are happy to say Hmmm to things that are useful but not exciting. In my opinion, to the degree that the community becomes unlike one another, the community will fail Reddit and Digg won’t go away… but they will become like the everyday daily newspaper, no longer representing the special and unique.—Esther Schindler