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The Problem With Crowd Sourcing is Crowds

Crowd sourcing sounds good to me, but then I remember, we humans are a difficult bunch. We like complaining more than praising. We post nasty, negative, and aggressively personal comments on blogs. We’re easily swayed by a few bad apples. Anonymity makes us really mean. Revenge makes us happy.

And we behave particularly badly in crowds. Don’t we?

For example, think of reviews. Remember when we were able to depend on popular reviews to figure out which books to read, movies to see, and products to buy? I say “not so much,” at least not any more. Coming off of a tough marathon of business travel, no more than a week at home since late March, I’m disappointed with how poorly review sites are working for me. I’ve been using Trip Advisor to help me book hotels and, with the gracious help of Trip Advisor reviews, ended up in a particularly unpleasant hotel with particularly pleasant reviews. Somebody’s been gaming the system.

Take a good look at reviews these days. On Yelp, TripAdvisor,, Google, or whatever. Weed out the ones that are obvious plants by self-interested people, like the owners or friends of owners. Weed out the disgruntled people pushing grudges, like one I saw recently who hated the restaurant that kicked her out because she was drunk (and she says so in her review). What’s left?

And then there’s the problem of nasty or meaningless comments on blog posts. Another problem of crowds. Not on this blog, of course – and thank you all for that – but I just read Website Editors Strive to Rein in Nasty Comments from NPR’s All Things Considered. Should comments be moderated? Does it cut into the interest level or authenticity of a site? Here’s a quote:

Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University, says when you have an environment where thousands of people are vying for attention, people know intuitively that it’s the nasty stuff that jumps out.

“Ironically and tragically, if you want people to respond to what you say, say something outrageously negative,” says Nass.

The Web, while it’s obviously a powerful possibility for crowd sourcing, brings out the worst in us. This is also from that NPR story:

It’s easy to lose your temper on the Internet. Anyone who reads — or writes — comments on blogs and news sites knows that the conversation can quickly stray from civil discourse to scathing personal attacks. For years, many websites just let users go at it, and free speech reigned. But now editors are rethinking just how open their sites should be.

The story goes on to suggest some ways to moderate comments and manage the conversation better. While controversy can build traffic and content, scathing attacks are just ugly; not really interesting to anybody, but quite common. And when it does turn personal, kind of creepy too. Anonymity seems to increase the nastiness level, for obvious reasons; but signing and adding an email address doesn’t make much difference.

And then there’s this new rash of annoyingly automated blog comments. If you moderate a blog you know what I mean. Lately there’s been a flood of inane generic comments placed by Web robots for some obscure SEO gains. Things like “nice post, food for thought, I’ve bookmarked this” that can be applied indiscriminately to thousands of posts.

Question: is this dark side of crowds part of the reason that celebrity gossip is so overvalued in news and media these days? We’d rather read silly celebrity stories than darkly disturbing stories of political chaos and environmental disasters. Or so it seems.

Because we humans are difficult. We like to be negative. And we often behave badly in a crowd.

(Image: by Philippe Leroyer via Flickr CC)


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