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Is the crowd dumbing us down and killing democracy?
by Robert Hillard

One of the most exciting features of the Internet is the ability to get the voice of the crowd almost instantly. Polling of our organisations and society that would have taken weeks in the past can be done in hours or even minutes. Ideas are tested in the court of public opinion in real time. This is potentially a huge boost for participation in democracy and the running of our businesses, or is it?

Our governments and businesses have long worked with a simple leadership model. We select our leaders through some sort of process and then give them the authority to act on our behalf. In the past, we asked our leaders to report back on a regular basis and, most of the time, we left them to it. In democracies we used elections to score the success or failure of our leaders. If they did well, we gave them another term. In business, we relied on a board selected by shareholders.

This really started to change with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle. Rather than curate 30 minutes of news once a day, the TV needed to find stories to fill all of the day. Unlike newsprint which had time for analyse, speed to air was a key performance metric of reporters and an initial, even if uninformed, sound bite was enough to get something to the public.

There is a popular movement to open-up government even further with regular electronic plebiscites and a default to open data. At its core is the desire to make the machinery of government transparent to all citizens. While transparency is good, it is the consequence of having “too many cooks in the kitchen” that leads to problems. Having everyone have their say, either through direct contributions or through endless polling means that the fundamental approach to decision making has to change. While fulltime politicians have the time to get underneath the complexity of a problem, the mass of voters don’t. The result is that complex arguments get lost in one or two sentence explanations.

This is happening at exactly the time that our global societies are becoming more complex and need sophisticated responses. Issues such as migration, debt and global taxation are too complex to be boiled down to a sound bite. It is telling that few have suggested turning our judiciary over to the court of public opinion!

H. L. Mencken, a well-known journalist from the first half of the 20th century who wrote extensively on society and democracy, once said “For every complex problem there is a solution that is concise, clear, simple, and wrong.” An overly crowd oriented approach to democracy results in these simple answers which are dumbing down our decision makers.

The danger doesn’t stop at our leaders, it also extends to the running of our organisations. We work more collaboratively than ever before. Technology is enabling us to source solutions from the crowd to almost any problem. This can work brilliantly for many problems such as getting a quick view on whether a brand message is going to resonate, or if a product would appeal to a particular demographic.

Where it can let us down is when we start trying to ask too many people to provide input to complex problems. Great design, sophisticated modelling and radical new product offerings don’t lend themselves well to having a large number of people collaborate to find the answer.

Collaboration and the use of the crowd needs to be targeted to the places where it works best. This is going to be more important than ever as more people move to the “gig economy”, the movement where they use platforms like 99designs, Expert360, Topcoder or 10EQS to manage their work. The most successful organisations are going to learn what questions and problems the crowd can solve for them.

Questions that require a simple, technical answer seem to suit this form of working well. Similarly, problems that can be solved with well-defined technical solutions are well suited to handing out to a group of strangers.

The crowd either completely rejects the status quo (the crowd as a protest movement), with little to offer in terms of alternative approaches or it slightly tweaks current solutions (the crowd without depth). Even the individual sourced through the crowd seems to be unlikely to rock the boat due to a lack of context for the problem they’re trying to solve.

The way we work and solve problems as a society and in our organisations is changing. The one thing we know for sure is that we don’t yet know how this will really work!

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