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Cat videos, conspiracy theories and the wisdom of the few

13/05/2019
by Simon BROEK
Keel: EN
Document available also in: CS PL DE HU FR ET

/hr/file/wisdom-crowdWisdom of the crowd

Wisdom of the crowd

 

In this blog post, Simon Broek looks at how to value and understand social media and the wisdom of the crowd. Any practitioner teaching citizenship education needs to be able to value the wisdom of the many and the wisdom of the few, says Simon Broek

 

Are the most popular products in shops generally better than those that are bought less often? Are the most read articles on social media generally better?

The answer obviously depends on how we define ‘better’, but if we mean ‘being more valuable, truthful and sustainable’, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’. Still, we all attribute a lot of value to what large groups of other consumers have done. The argument is that when a large group of people do something, it must be good. In other words, we outsource our own critical thinking ability, copy what a large group of others have done, and call this the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.

Generally, this is not a bad thing. It saves time and it often makes sense to follow a crowd.

 

Just how wise is the crowd?

All this becomes problematic when the wisdom of the crowd is based on the same uncritical assessment as our own, and when the crowd is steered by a force that is not inspired by wisdom, but by other objectives (such as making a profit). To relate this back to the two questions above:

  • The question on the most popular products: maybe the reason why the crowd buys the same items is that they are more widely available or cheaper than other comparable items. One could question whether the reason for the lower price is because the producer is smarter and more efficient, or because his workers or the environment have paid the price.
  • The question on popular social media articles: When it comes to social media articles, it is not a matter of value, reliability or sustainability; the only thing that really matters is whether an article generates web traffic. This is useful for advertisers and the companies hosting social media sites, as it helps sell adverts and products. What attracts people is usually something funny and cute (e.g. cat videos), the activities of famous people, or something contradictory (e.g. conspiracy theories).
 

When poor wisdom becomes conspiracy

Following the crowd becomes problematic when we attribute value and truth to the fact that some articles are read by the crowd: if a large group of people were reading articles about conspiracies about 09-11 or denying the holocaust, there must be some truth in them, right? Well of course not, but conspiracy theories can become valid positions in debates: there is plenty of evidence of this to be found online.

What we do affects our own life, but it also informs the decisions of other people. If we click on an online post or share it, this post becomes more noticed by others as well. The positions expressed in this post therefore also gains importance, and eventually even ridiculous articles can be used in debates to inform public opinions.

It is impossible for us to predict all the implications of our actions and we do need shortcuts to make our life easier. Following the crowd can be one way, but we need to ensure we stand back, pause and critically evaluate why the crowd might have made its collective decision.

 

Does this blog post apply to the EPALE community as well?

EPALE is a website. Statistics are recorded about what articles and blog posts are read and liked the most. From this, EPALE can learn what type of content is most appealing to the EPALE reader. As a community, however, we need to safeguard the diversity of views and opinions expressed. Even when some blog posts do not attract big crowds, they can be considered valuable, trustworthy and sustainable for part of the community. To know this, EPALE needs to go beyond mere statistics and needs to know why readers find specific blog posts and articles interesting.

It is therefore important that readers on EPALE do not only read and like, but also engage with the content by commenting.

I hope that this blog has sparked some thoughts and I am looking forward to an interesting discussion! In one-to-one discussions we base ourselves on the wisdom of the few and less on the wisdom of the many.


Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

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  • Kasutaja Polona Frumen pilt
    Some very good points in your blog, but... I clicked on your blog because of the title. It made me curious what it is about. The fact is that there is a lot of content online so you click on things that make you curious - cats, conspiracies or learning. Maybe it would be worth spending some time learning how to write content for online users. I can't say how web-friendly are contributors to this website because I'm struggling with all the languages used and the speed of the website. However I keep coming back because I see a lot of potential in such a platform.
  • Kasutaja Sławomir Łais pilt
    Interesting point of view. 
    IMHO there some levels of crowd-communities and the reliability can be different on those levels. Something like:
    • just the crowd (like opinions in online store)
    • crowd/community with real identities (like Linked In where you use your real name and somehow take responsibility for your words)
    • small communities where people know each other more or less (like one university teachers community)
    • learning groups - where people know echa other even if they come from different organizations or projects
    I agree that commenting is great weapon in fight for valuable crowd information.
  • Kasutaja Simon BROEK pilt
    That is a useful distinction, but I have the feeling even here in the second bullet, real names do not prevent people to think carefully about the implications of what they write.
  • Kasutaja Cath Harcula pilt
    I agree with your point Simon that the range of blog posts on the EPALE site can be considered valuable, trustworthy and sustainable for part of the community. I'm not sure that the number of likes and comments is indicative of the interest that the posts create.  I wonder if the fact that its possible to access the content on the EPALE site without logging in, but not to like or comment, has an impact on the amount of responses. Also the time is takes to log on to the site is a discouragement.  I know I often read without logging in to save time.
  • Kasutaja Polona Frumen pilt
    I agree, this website is very slow. I often lose patience and I don't bother logging in. 
  • Kasutaja Simon BROEK pilt
    Point taken: there is a need to increase the speed on the EPALE platform.