Tuesday, February 08, 2005

GroupBlink (or the Ignorance of Crowds): Part I

More to come later in the week, but today we'd like to present our individual blink on this subject: that blogger communities are increasingly vulnerable to unfortunate acts of groupthink -- or "herding" -- despite the availability of processes and tools for thoughtful, constructive, distributed dialog. As a tribute to Malcolm Gladwell's new book, let's call this phenomenon "GroupBlink," for what's at stake here is the potential for an extremely useful skill -- the ability many of us we have for rapid, accurate cognition -- to corrupt absolutely in circumstances where the demands of the group can overwhelm reason. Gladwell's book closes with the chilling example of the Amadou Diallo case, where a group of policemen in New York City repeatedly shot an innocent man because a number of false cues were misinterpreted by the group. Had a lone policeman been on the scene, Diallo may not have been shot, argues Gladwell.

While the comparison to the Diallo case may be extreme, we've recently witnessed a number of group-blogger transgressions where individual restraint also could have prevented the commission of the "crime." We're not the first to say this, but it's time for the blogger community to carefully examine its potential for group misbehavior. Or a more positive approach might be to ask, what are the conditions that need to exist for better behavior? Gladwell's book touches on this subject. But for a more thorough look check out "The Wisdom of Crowds," by James Surowiecki, Gladwell's friend and colleague at The New Yorker. Surowiecki dissects a number of studies which all seem to show that groups -- when organized and led correctly -- almost always outhink the best individual performers. But not all distributed groups are alike, and the benefits of collective wisdom come to play only when the following conditions exist:

--independence (each group member has to believe he or she can contribute)
--diversity (different types of group members -- different types of intelligence, personality, style, etc.)
--decentralization (less emphasis on central authority, more emphasis on individual accountability)
--aggregation (a system for processing, synthesizing all the contrbutions).

How does this apply to the blogger community? A recent flap in my world (a minor scandal that has been dubbed with the unfortunate name of "flakgate") offers some clues. More on that, later, after we've taken the time to synthesize all the blinks.


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