Sunday, February 13, 2005

BlogThink/GroupThink (or the Ignorance of Crowds) -- Part II

[Note: we've posted a shorter version of this article on AlwaysOn].

Several days ago, we posted a short item comparing and contrasting two recent books by staff writers at The New Yorker. We wondered what we can learn from these two very different looks at human intelligence and behavior. Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" presents evidence that individuals, under the right circumstances, can rapidly and correctly outhink the group. James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" gives countless examples of people working collaboratively, and consistently besting the most gifted individuals. The New Yorker appears to have cornered the market for what must be a very healthy demand for popular studies on the counterintuitive -- the literary antidote to middle-class complacency. But what's more remarkable: two ideas that are counterintuitive -- and each arguably correct -- are also contradictory. Together, the two books appear to trump both sides of the individual-versus-group intelligence debate.

But alas, the two ideas can be reconciled (as the two authors attempted to do in a series of emails featured on Slate). Without too much effort, one can see how, in the right circumstances, accurate and rapid individual cognition -- the phenomenon recorded in Gladwell's book -- can make good sense in Surowiecki's world where the group is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. But that would in fact be an ideal world, for it would involve a well-coordinated, high-performing group that could also pay ultimate tribute to the sanctity of individual contribution.

I can think of no better example of such a group than our ideal conception of the blogger network -- an ideal that recent experience shows is far easier to imagine than it is to achieve.

Take for example a recent and fairly well-publicized event in my world -- public relations -- that currently is testing the proper relationship between individual and group blogger behavior.
The cover story in today's New York Times business section chronicles most of the saga: a recent investigation uncovered that the U.S. Department of Education -- with the help of the Ketchum public relations agency -- paid a prominent and outspoken conservative PR man/broadcast commentator to espouse the DOE's position on "No Child Left Behind."

But that's not all. PR bloggers were ensnared in a subsequent, less well-publicized "scandal," an affair that quickly was dubbed with the unfortunate name flakgate. Jay Rosen, an NYU professor and prominent blogger, castigated the community of PR bloggers for failing to take up arms against Ketchum and make this their own "Dan Rather." It all sounded right and good, and the ploy was somewhat successful -- scores of PR bloggers (I was one of them) were herded to Rosen's blog to weigh in on the Ketchum story or to explain why they hadn't commented before. But there were two problems. First, it turns out that a fair number of PR bloggers -- some of them very well known in the PR blogging world -- had in fact written about the scandal (Rosen's online search for blogger posts was faulty). Second, Rosen's attack assumed uniformity in mission and purpose for the PR blogger community. Some, in fact, were rightly caught by surprise -- or insulted. In his initial comments to Rosen, PR blogger Mike Manuel asked, "[w]hen did I sign up to become a PR industry watchdog? I didn’t get that memo." Tom Murphy, a blogger who had in fact posted early on the Ketchum story, quipped: "PR Bloggers Stand in a Corner."

Several weeks have passed and Rosen's attack has abated. But the PR blogger community is still feeling the effects. Several bloggers have organized online forums to discuss the beleaguered reputation of the PR industry (the latest of those forums begins today). And many have written tough and probing analyses on what went wrong in the first and second episodes. From this blogger's perspective, it's as though Rosen's attack had the accidental and salutary effect of bringing the PR blogger community together for the first time, and instigating something far more valuable than another "Dan Rather." PR bloggers today appear to be collaborating in a more thoughtful investigation into their profession. Give them time, and they may come up with something.

And credit Rosen's attack on blogger-class complacency if they do. It was a presumptuous attack -- true -- on an imaginary group. But now there appears to be a real and increasingly vocal group, and it's a group of individuals working out their own contributions to reform on the edges of the network (recall "World of Ends," the Doc Searls/David Weinberger mini-manifesto on how intelligence is gained on a "dumb" Internet). And, of course, every PR professional has the duty to contribute only as he sees fit. As Mike Manuel recently explained his own position on the matter, the "standards and values that guide the way I work with my clients, my co-workers and the media can kick this issue straight in the ass – far better than any blog post I might write." If each and every PR pro were to work as authentically and independently, and we were to continue the discussion, we would have a very smart group indeed.


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