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2012: the year the crowds rose to power

By on July 20, 2012

by editorial assistant Zoya Street

I remember that when Wikipedia became established as a major thing, there was a lot of discussion about the ‘wisdom of crowds’; the idea that, in certain situations, crowds are wiser than experts, popularised by James Surowiecki’s 2004 book. The classic example if the wisdom of crowds is Francis Galton asking people in a marketplace to estimate the weight of a cow, and taking an average of all their estimates – the larger the group of people, the closer that average would be to the cow’s true weight.

After a while, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ declined as a trendy idea. For one thing, not all forms of knowledge are as democratised as the weight of a cow. While most people have some sense of what things weigh, or the finer plot details of a TV series, not everybody has any reasonable sense of, for example, the history of early modern Japanese erotic prints – I had a great time writing a Wikipedia article on that topic, but as a niche topic being written by an undergrad it benefitted neither from the input of a huge group nor an author with any established expertise.

Wikipedia became a shameful secret – by the time I started university in 2006, people would never admit to anyone in authority that they had even glanced at a Wikipedia page, and when they did talk about their use of the site it was with a blush and a giggle. In spite of the fact that Wikipedia was found to be as accurate as the Britannica, it was dismissed as inaccurate and unreliable compared to other texts that were created on the stable, traditional foundation of the cult of the expert.*

This year, the crowds are once again the talk of the day.

Crowdfunding is crowdsourcing market research

First, crowdfunding has established the power of online social networking to financially support niche products that traditional publishers and funding bodies would either reject or water down. But it’s not just about getting financial backing from networks of fans. Crowdfunding is a form of crowd-sourced market research – the testing ground of social sharing means that creators are able to first judge whether their idea has an audience before investing time into prototyping it, or can test the reception of a work in progress in a potential market to decide how much further time to invest on it. The involvement of money in this testing makes it more powerful – a high level of desire and approval is required for the user to become a backer, and having put money behind an idea people become more passionate advocates.

Crowdsourcing authority

Now, following the success of their crowdsourced platform for creating in-game content for Team Fortress 2, Valve has announced that it will be crowdsourcing market research and product curation through Greenlight. To protect this crowdsourced decision making from the effect of empty cans, Jason Holtman hinted at Develop that they are also looking into a way of crowdsourcing the elevation of some users into expert opinion makers and the filtering out of unimportant, grumpy rants. “If I want to know which movie to see, of course I’m going to consult the New York Times  rather than asking the internet”, he reasoned, but added that he is interested in ways that the authoritative reviewers of the future could come not from the press, but from online reviewers that other users have identified as particularly valuable. I’m calling it now: Greenlight is going to be fertile terra nova for talented new voices in games criticism to grow a reputation.

Crowd curation

Curation of media content is also under threat from new viewing habits, as television engagement is watered down by the second screen and Smart TV streamlines the flow of on-demand content to living rooms. Most media people seem to agree that curation is likely to continue to have a role, but it seems that Greenlight-style crowd curation will have an ever growing importance, with the possibility of creating a constant, frictionless flow of individualised content to users, powered by intelligent processing of information about users’ viewing habits. If crowd curation systems become efficient enough, this would solve the discoverability problem for niche content, undermining the dominance of lowest-common-denominator content. In comparison to perfectly individualised and diverse programming, human curation will probably look ham-handed and poorly targeted.

This new wave of crowd-generated wisdom is the aggregated version of the statement ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.’ The crowd knows what it wants better than the experts appointed to decide their content on their behalf. We might also find that it’s better at appointing authoritative voices than the old heirarchical structures.

*Personally, I’m a great fan of wikipedia, though I haven’t contributed in years. I wrote a post on my personal blog about a year ago advocating its proper use as a research material.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.