Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds and the unwise crowd

I read Wisdom of Crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations by James Surowiecki. A recommended good read (spoiler alert: the author fails to state how to build a wise crowd and how the wisdom of crowds applies to nations).
So what is Surowiecki’s thesis? He argues that experts are overrated because with the right conditions, groups are more intelligent than individual experts. He notes that for a crowd to be wise, four features must be present; diversity (different people and ideas. For example, Nigerians from East, West, South, North), independence (A makes decisions independent of B, there is no herd mentality or bandwagon effects at play), decentralization (the availability of local knowledge), and aggregation (individuals’ decisions are collated into a collective decision by a benevolent central planner). Surowiecki says these four features can be used to solve most problems because on average the crowd is always right. Examples of the wisdom of crowds include the emergence of Twitter, Linux and the various Occupy movements. These examples show that the wisdom of crowds truly works.
However, can it work in Nigeria? Do the active Nigerians on social media exhibit the traits of a wise crowd? I’d say not yet. Comments and views of Nigerians on Twitter and Facebook give me no hope. This is because feature 1 (diversity) is present but that is where it ends. Herd mentality is common and individuals who try to deviate from “accepted” views are overruled. As a result, we cannot proceed to features three and four. This practice is sad because: I have observed that the accepted responses or views are incorrect, generation of ideas is stifled and the band wagon is always off point.  If we cannot allow ideas and thoughts to flow without shouting one another down can we effect the change we want? My answer is no because if you look at the thoughts of people on certain issues, it is like we sleep and face the same direction. Nigeria seems to prove that crowds are not wise.
This can be changed. How? It can be changed by Nigeria’s social media activists. We need to change our focus from complaints to actions. Rant all you want, the governor that would be steal public funds would do so with sufficient people who would “convince” you that it is his right to do so. Related to this is I believe that valuable time that can be used to develop solutions is spent on complaining about all that is bad about this country. I think that if Nigeria’s Facebook and twitter activists change roles from chief complainers to chief aggregators of collective wisdom, we may begin to see changes.
It is easy for me to question and state how incompetent the minister of Ministry A is. However, the goal should be how can I as a citizen change ministry A. A lot of us were all over twitter moaning the Dana Crash, some people used social media to organize and provide for people affected by the crash.
It is time we aggregate our collective wisdom to better our society and social media gives us an inexpensive means of doing so. We do not have to meet in Lagos and discuss how things can change. We can do that from the comfort of our beds and homes.

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