The past week or so has not been good for the wisdom of crowds. While the crowd can be wise every so often, given the right circumstances and sufficient scale, crowds are usually much, much more likely to be incredibly stupid, and to behave accordingly.
Theorists like Clay Shirky, -- whose 2008 book Here Comes Everybody extolled the crowd as it manifested itself on the likes of Wikipedia, Flickr, Second Life (!) and MySpace (!!) -- tend to ignore or gloss over the many downsides of new communications technologies and to overcriticize institutions like media organizations. Shirky and his ilk are zealous advocates for the "empowerment" that technologies bring to ordinary citizens and for power of crowds -- or as others might refer to them, mobs.
Sometimes, the hive mind is wiser, or at least more powerful and efficient, than the individual mind, as when it stood up to and (with the help of well-financed technology companies) defeated the boneheaded proposed anti-piracy laws SOPA and PIPA. But other times, the hive mind wants to gang up on a woman and threaten to rape her because she successfully campaigned to get Jane Austen's image put on England's 10-pound note.
That's what happened last week to writer Caroline Criado-Perez. For 12 hours, she was subjected to about 50 abusive tweets per hour, some of them threatening violence, including rape. It might seem bizarre that the placement of Jane Austen on currency would cause so much rage in so many people. And it is. But this wasn't exactly spontaneous. Criado-Perez said it was carried out by "a nest of men who co-ordinate attacks on women." Groups of men, even cretinous ones, don't spontaneously become enraged over something that innocuous, small, and specific.
One of them did, for whatever reason, and the rest of the hive followed suit. The wisdom of crowds.
In the Guardian, Tanya Gold writes that the incident shows that Twitter "has given the vicious a voice." I would add, it's not just the vicious, but the stupid, the boring, the criminal, and the dangerously wrong. Giving everybody a "voice" is what the digital triumphalists believe to be the chief benefit of the coming of everybody, but it's actually the chief drawback. The wise get a "voice," too, but they are largely drowned out by idiots. And anyway, in the pre-everybody era, the wise were usually able to find a way to make their voices heard through institutions set up to vet them. It was far from perfect, but at least our media remained free of sustained streams of rape threats by gangs of enraged morons.
Social media is not inherently wrong and bad, of course. There is much to recommend Twitter, for example (though the benefits seem to diminish the more people pile into it and use it in annoying or harmful ways). The point is that it's also far from inherently right and good, whatever tech pundits might say.
Another incidence of the coming of everybody this week concerned the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by the respected religion scholar Reza Aslan. Video depicting Fox News wind-up doll Lauren Green interviewing Aslan made the rounds over the weekend, astonishing many. For nearly 10 full minutes, she tried to get him to explain how a Muslim could possibly write a book about Jesus. It was nothing short of incredible, even for Fox News, so it got lots of attention.
That's when Everybody came. The drooling masses took to Amazon to give Aslan's book -- which I would bet precisely none of them had read -- one-star ratings and to write enraged, inarticulate, misspelled, grammar-free "reviews" riddled with false assertions. When that became known, Aslan's defenders piled in, giving the book five-star ratings.
Supposedly, thanks to things like Amazon's customer-review sections, we don't need professional book reviewers anymore. If that were true, ordinary, sane readers who might actually want to know whether they should buy the book would have to rely on reviews such as:
The author doesn't know anything about Jesus. He is a Muslim and not a historian. I highly recommend reading The Holy Bible to find out more about Jesus or the books One God One Message and All That The Prophets Have Spoken, again if you are truly seeking the truth about who Jesus is, why He came and what He did for you.