LightBox Collaborative was well represented at this year’s Communications Network conference, held in Los Angeles a few weeks ago– Holly, Cynthia, and I had a chance to catch up with colleagues and old friends and make new connections. We also had a chance to hear from some truly compelling speakers, starting with James Surowieki (the financial columnist for the New Yorker) in the opening plenary session.
He spoke about his 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. The general idea is that a crowd, when assembled according to some fairly specific criteria, is able to give a better answer than an expert– and a better one than a group of experts, too, which is counter-intuitive, but Surowiecki has the data to back up his claims. The mechanics of assembling the crowd and effectively aggregating their answers aren’t easy, but the implications are profound.
There were at least half a dozen big ideas in it worth sharing, but I’ll limit myself to three:
Crowds and Market Research. As communications professionals, we’re used to targeting audiences as narrowly as we can, and when we’re researching messages, we often start by assembling a group that looks like our target audience. Surowiecki talked about market research using large, heterogenous groups to arrive at better answers. The key is asking questions that get your research subjects to give their opinions on what other people will think and do. It turns out that people are quite good at understanding their fellow humans, and that by asking a large group, you control for some of the bias and obfuscation that can result when you ask people about themselves.
Fifteen minutes into his presentation, Surowiecki had my attention– and had me questioning one of the basic ways that we do our work as communicators.
The Role of Communicators. To work correctly, smart crowds need to have legitimate independence of thought, something that’s actually quite hard to come by in the real world as we form like-thinking groups in our work and personal lives. And if indepence of thought is so important to optimal outcomes, where does that leave us as communicators, focused as we are on message discipline and repetition to get our ideas heard? This line of thinking points us toward a role as connectors, aggregators and promoters of the best ideas– shaping conversation by activating our large networks of loose connections. All of which aligns with the shift away from mass media to social networks of course, and reinforces the importance of authenticity in our communications work. Think “thought leaders.” Now stop thinking it, because it’s an awful phrase.
The Value of Diversity. Perhaps the most important thing I heard in Surowiecki’s session was a powerful argument for the value of diversity. Smart crowds depend on it, because it’s what gives them their power. A group bringing together people of different backgrounds (socioeconomic, cultural, education level, life experience) comes to conclusions that a more narrowly constituted one–even one filled with “experts” on a given topic– would miss. The diverse group can see into each others’ blind spots and explore a broader range of potential solutions to a problem. Their diversity of background gives the group cognitive diversity, and the ability to reach better solutions because of it.
The mechanics of assembling smart crowds and aggregating their answers are complicated, and I wish that Surowiecki had gone into them further. Applying these lessons to the complex social and policy questions that we most often deal with is also challenging. But the ideas he presented were truly thought-provoking, and worth the price of admission to the conference alone.
And that was just the first session! For descriptions of and reactions to some of the other fine sessions, you might consider checking out Kris Putney Walkerly’s Philanthropy411.org, which brought together a team of bloggers to cover the conference or the conference-related contributions at the Communications Network’s own blog.
Wise crowds, indeed.