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The Wisdom of (Small) Crowds

The Wisdom of (Small) Crowds
Photograph by Ilker Gurer/Gallery Stock

The wisdom of crowds is one of those perfectly of-our-moment ideas. The phrase comes from New Yorker writer James Surowiecki, whose book of that title was published almost a decade ago. Its thesis is nicely summed up in its opening, which describes the 19th-century English scientist Francis Galton’s realization, while attending a county fair, that in a competition to guess the weight of an ox the average of all of the guesses people had submitted (787 in all) was almost exactly right: 1,197 pounds vs. the actual weight of 1,198 pounds, a degree of accuracy that no individual could attain on his own. As individuals we may be ignorant and short-sighted, but together we’re wise.

The implication is that the bigger the crowd, the greater the accuracy. It’s like running an experiment: All else being equal, the larger the sample size, the more trustworthy the result. The idea has a particular resonance at a time when online businesses from Amazon.com to Yelp rely on aggregated user reviews, and social networks such as Facebook sell ads that rely in part on showing you how many of your friends “like” something.