Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Stupidity of Crowds?

As a proponent of citizen-centered civic engagement (and philanthropy), I firmly believe that real people can and do have an important role to play in community problem solving and decision making. And that this role must go beyond merely providing input to experts to serving as full and active partners in making decisions about everything from budget setting and city planning to school reform and funding allocations.

Last year, as many of you know (see previous posts), I worked with the Case Foundation on launching a “citizen-centered” grantmaking program that asked “real people” to participate in every level of the decision-making process as to who received grants (and who didn’t). What made this initiative different from others was that, rather than providing the public with a pre-set list of possible grantee organizations and asking them to vote on who should get grants, the Foundation involved the public in setting the actual criteria and guidelines by which organizations would be selected for their list.

Despite this key difference, the initiative still tended to be lumped together with others that were primarily using public voting about grants as the “American Idolization of philanthropy” (the popular culture reference) and the “wisdom of the crowds” model (the literary reference). To be honest, I’ve never fully bought into James Surowiecki's thesis that the aggregation of information in groups can lead to decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.

So, I was interested to see that theory challenged recently with the results of two very well-publicized initiatives that invited the public to vote on the issues that they thought were most important for the Obama administration to tackle. One was sponsored by the administration itself at the website (now, and the other, by, an online community and media network for social issues in partnership with 50 other groups.

Both initiatives received hundreds of thousands of votes on more than 7,000 issues, but the eerie result was that both resulted in the same issue being the top vote getter: the legalization of marijuana. With all that’s going on in the world, this is the top issue on our minds (well, ok, on the foggy minds of what appears to be a nation of stoners)?

Some might point to these outcomes and say, “see? This is why asking people to vote on something as important as the allocation of resources isn’t a good idea and dilutes the process.” But what struck me is that these results underscore a central tenet of citizen-centered civic engagement (and grantmaking): That there is and should be a role for both experts and “real people” in these kinds of processes—not just one of the other. The trick is to find the right mix of these individuals for the task at hand, paying careful attention to a bias one way or the other. That will be difficult for traditional institutions—including government and foundations—to grapple with, but there is value to having both sets of folks at the table—not just the “crowds.”


  1. Hey Cynthia,

    First of all, I'd like to say hello -- my colleagues at the Monitor Institute speak highly of you and pointed me to your blog as a worthwhile read.

    Your comments on the fact that marijuana legalization rose to the top of the and lists make me stop and wonder. Granted, legalizing marijuana is probably not the weightiest issue for Obama to tackle, all things considered. But I wonder if those two crowds (which are probably better considered as one, since they doubtless have a heavy overlap) might be wiser than you give them credit for. I don't know the exact demographics of who showed up, but it seems a fair bet that they're the same tech-forward members of Generation X, the Millennials, and politically savvy digital-native teens who are avid users of the rest of the cutting-edge Web 2.0 tools. If that's the case, is it really a surprise that legal pot is at the top of the list? After all, everyone knows that this isn't a list that will actually determine Obama's policy choice to prioritize alternative energy over healthcare. All these sites could claim to offer was a chance at picking one or two issues that Obama would know the tech-savvy public wanted to raise to his attention. Legalizing marijuana is an issue that does have a lot of pull in that set. Is it too much of a stretch to think that this particular crowd of online activists might rally around legalizing marijuana as the policy priority that is most thirsty for attention -- especially when voting on these sites is a social activity that is easily promoted in the Facebook newsfeed?

  2. Hi Noah:
    Thanks for posting. Your point did cross my mind, too, since there's little doubt that those who responded to these polls were the same people -- mostly tech-savvy (let's face it) younger people -who would understandably be more concerned with this issue. So, I wasn't implying that this wasn't an important issue (it is), but rather, that it was interesting that it landed on the top of both lists (out of 7,000 issues). And, I agree. What is deemed "important" is all relative. The "stupidity" in the title was merely a tweak on the "wisdom of crowds." :)

  3. Interesting post and thanks for pushing the idea out there that crowdsourcing might not yield expected results... but my stance on the legalization of pot has nothing to do with stoners. It has to do with the fact that I live in San Diego and am VERY aware of the fact that the Mexican meltdown (drug lord turf battles, 5000+ murders last year, border spillover) is more of a threat to this part of the US than middle eastern terror groups.