by Colin Jowell

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki was one of the “must reads” of 2005. Its premise was that markets, or crowds, were much better at predicting market outcomes than so-called experts. It argued that groups of people created trustworthy networks without central compliance. It’s not without irony that I am refreshing my knowledge of the thesis from Wikipedia - the ultimate crowdsourcing tool.

But across social media I’ve been seeing more and more articles that on closer inspection are hoaxes (and have fallen for one or two myself).  Here’s just one example (warning: not for faint-hearted) of the old “Man bites Dog” ploy.  It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s photoshop, but more and more that’s the world we live in.  By the time hoaxes are exposed, most people who saw it have continued with their days.  This misinformation now one more piece of useless data in our over-clogged (and increasingly misled) brains.

Relatively harmless distractions masquerading as news are one thing. But what about using misinformation to affecting purchasing decisions?  Is hoaxing now an effective marketing strategy? You bet it is. Musician Rob Cantor was garnering 1 million YouTube views a day with a video that featured him doing 29 impressions of famous artists.  He was transparently selling his album, which did pretty well on iTunes considering its content. What he was less transparent about was that he was not singing on 28 of the 29 impressions.  He fessed up but by that time, the downloading was done.

That’s pretty innocuous compared to the case of Garcinia Cambogia. This diet supplement, promoted by Oprah’s favourite doctor, Dr Oz, was a sensation in its day. Google it now and you will find a good balance of information - since Dr Oz has been lambasted by a US congressional hearing for telling outright lies. Interestingly, it’s still live on his site, so you can still be conned if you want to. But two years back, the net was flooded with mostly positive reviews. Hype won out over fact.

And while the remit of this article is marketing rather than politics, these mistruths are at their most dangerous when it comes to world events. People share before thinking, let alone checking, by which time the damage is done.  

The time it takes to create a balanced view, means that it’s often too slow to have any traction on the net. You could argue the “Wisdom of Crowds” is still at work, correcting misinformation. But if it is, it doesn’t happen nearly as fast as  Surowiecki suggested. So crowdsourcing is anything but a quick fix. The first answer the crowd gives may not be better than your answer. Or if it’s Vegemite’s legendary botch of a new brand, iSnack 2.0, it could be a whole lot worse.

The utopian reality of the web is far less honest and truthful than the one we were sold. We’re ultimately slaves to the algorithms of the Search engines unless we engage in a healthy degree of scepticism. And it’s a healthy wake up call for marketers to exercise instinct and leadership rather than just listening to the crowd - especially if the crowd takes its time to prove them right in the end.

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Be careful that the feedback signals you are getting are a reflection of a wide variety of credible sources. Wikipedia alone is not one of them!
  • Expect to see more, not less misinformation in the future. The prediction was for an explosion of data, which means incorrect information will also multiply.
  • By all means ask your customers. Crowdsource your ideas. But ensure that the process has time to yield a more reliable truth.