Experts vs crowds

By Andreas Pouros | 09 Oct 2009

Since time immemorial, information has been created and propagated by experts and crowds alike, each contributing to our collective store of knowledge, and therefore human development, in their own unique ways. However, experts and crowds aren't necessarily happy bedfellows and the conflict between these two sources of knowledge and information is now being fought out online at an astonishing pace. This conflict is one of the driving forces in the Internet's evolution and may in fact be the key determinant of our entire relationship with information going into the next decade.

As the sources of most knowledge, experts and crowds are responsible for a lot of what's good, but also a lot of what's bad. Crowds for example have given us Amazon product ratings, Wikipedia, and a multitude of cultural and political movements harnessing the web. However, crowds have also been responsible for the persistence of irrational superstitions, financial borrowing that exceeds means, and Katie Price.

Experts have given us the iphone, laser eye surgery and modern plumbing, but occasionally have also given us persistent, concentrated, damaging sources of misinformation - it was an 'expert' that created that largely unfounded panic about the link between MMR and autism for example. 

But let's start with crowds.

Problems with crowds
The value of the crowd is in the aggregation of collective knowledge, where the aggregation overwhelms the inevitable voices in the crowd that are just plain wrong about whatever the focus at that time might be. The theory is generally sound, but also problematic, as on closer inspection the crowd's strengths are also its potential drawbacks, and for several reasons.

Firstly, the opportunities to contribute that have been afforded to the individual through social web innovations (digg, Twitter, blogs, etc.) have made it incredibly easy for anyone to join the discourse and co-determine its direction, and that direction might not be particularly productive. For example, crowds write articles, digg, write blog posts, twitter all day, and affect search engine algorithms by linking to pages on the internet, but those people in the crowd might just be the people with the most time on their hands, and not necessarily those with the most knowledge and expertise. Arguably, the people with the most to offer are too busy producing those things that the crowd will then talk about, instead of driving or contributing to the lifecycle of its discourse.

Secondly, the crowd tend to be, in aggregate, drawn to the fun and the frivolous, as that is the common ground between its contributors, given that they are an extreme mixture of talents, professions, compulsions and convictions. This focus on the frivolous does indeed take the human pulse of our society, but arguably this focus does little to further real human knowledge on the really important stuff, nor does it allow any voice of dissention if that dissention is unpopular. Consider for example that Ashton Kutcher is the most followed person on Twitter, and not Stephen Fry or Noam Chomsky. Thomas Fuller, the historian, once said that 'the mob has many heads but no brains' and there does seem to be a degree of truth in that statement.

Thirdly, the crowd's ROE ('return on energy expended') is typically very poor, with swarms of people spending huge amounts of time, energy, and often money producing things that either have no intrinsic value or have already been produced. For example, during the heavy snow of 2009 in the UK the BBC received 35,000 images of the conditions from people experiencing it after it asked the crowd to contribute. That's a lot of collective time and effort for what wasn't particularly useful and for what a meteorologist could have told the BBC within a few minutes. Yes, the images might have shown the human perspective of the extreme weather, but 35,000 images, mostly of snow, is overkill, and the BBC itself didn't expect anywhere near that many and had no real use for them.

Problems with experts
Experts have the training and experience to be authorities on particular topics and are therefore indispensable to society as their depth of specialised knowledge is key to human progress. However, experts are not beyond reproach, and there are several problems with harnessing the knowledge of experts versus that of the crowd.

Firstly, experts' views are sometimes based on things other than the facts, such as questionable moral intentions, skewed research methodologies, or politics. This is why multiple experts are typically needed to really get to the route of something. This then becomes a good argument for the crowd as when a huge number of people put forward their views on something, even when they are not experts; they get it right in aggregate, an impressive amount of the time, in comparison to a solitary expert. 

Secondly, experts are fewer in number than ordinary people which reduces our access to them. To communicate with an expert we typically need to make an appointment, get in a queue, pay someone, or be a journalist. Due to this issue of access people will typically turn to the crowd for advice that arguably should be directed to an expert. For example, the medical advice being given out by non-medical people within platforms like Yahoo Answers can often be very wrong.  Note that in that instance the crowd's knowledge isn't sufficiently harnessed as one person in the crowd can simply respond to a question, with no efficient mechanism of correcting falsehoods.

Thirdly, the definition of what constitutes an expert is not so clear cut and we often do not hear directly from them either, as the views of experts are typically funnelled through the machinery of the press and sometimes altered from the expert's original conclusions. For example, the MMR scare of the last decade where links to cases of autism where alleged, created significant panic in the UK, but has largely been found to be a panic propagated by a so-called expert using methodologies that were highly questionable.  This issue also affect areas such as SEO where self-proclaimed SEO experts are often nothing of the sort.

The interaction between experts and crowds
Ultimately, both experts and crowds are important to knowledge and information, be it the creation, dissemination or propagation of it. The interaction between these two entities is currently incredibly inefficient and fragmented, even with all the technology and platforms we now have at our disposal. An expert makes a statement, it is taken by the press and published, the crowd latch on to it and it enters a stage of rapid circulation and discussion until a consensus is reached between the press and the crowd which is then assumed to be fact.

Experts then enter the fray to try and correct this direction based on new information or in response to the perversion of the knowledge that may have taken place within the crowd or press. Experts have blogs and journals at their disposal, but represent far fewer in number than the crowd, so turning the tide becomes a struggle where they are easily overwhelmed by the zeal of the crowd.

Furthermore, the mechanics of the web collude in diminishing the experts' options here, rendering the expert largely voiceless. Search engine algorithms will generally rank documents higher up in search engine results if they are linked to from a greater number of sites, so pages on press sites and social networking sites therefore get preferential rankings, and sites with voting models like Digg and Reditt allow the crowd to efficiently back false data as people are more likely to vote for documents that are sensationalist as opposed to those that are sober and measured, even if the latter represents the truth. Essentially, rightly or wrongly, the technologies we have at our disposal give the crowd significant mechanical advantages over the expert...


Look out for the concluding part of my essay next week in which I'll be covering:
- Experts fighting back
- Expert Crowds & Curators
And relating all of these phenomena to the future of search and social media.