The Banality of Crowds

February 5, 2009
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The other day, my wife told me a story that struck me as a great parable about exploratory search–that is, if true stories qualify as parables.

It was lunch time and she was facing a problem familiar to many of us city dwellers (well, New Yorkers at least): she wanted to find some place interesting to eat among the overwhelming set of options. She decided on a new approach–her version of asking “What Would Google Do?“.

She saw a couple exiting an office building and decided to follow them…

The other day, my wife told me a story that struck me as a great parable about exploratory search–that is, if true stories qualify as parables.

It was lunch time and she was facing a problem familiar to many of us city dwellers (well, New Yorkers at least): she wanted to find some place interesting to eat among the overwhelming set of options. She decided on a new approach–her version of asking “What Would Google Do?“.

She saw a couple exiting an office building and decided to follow them (at a discreet distance) to their lunch spot. She ended up at…McDonald’s. And no, I didn’t make this up, much as I might have tried!

While pop philosophers and psychologists have made much of the “wisdom of crowds“, there’s a dark side: crowds rarely come up with anything interesting. Outsourcing your decisions to a crowd may yield a satisficing decision, but don’t get your hopes up for more.

Granted, there’s more than one way to crowdsource: no one says that you have to go with a majority vote, or to follow someone at random. But leveraging the wisdom of a crowd in a more meaningful way requires a means to comprehend the diversity of views among the individuals that comprise that crowd.

In other words, you need exploratory search.

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