The Madness of Mobs: Twitter and Swine Flu

In talking about web 2.0, we often think about ideas like mass collaboration, a participatory web, the web as a communication platform, and generally speaking The Wisdom of Crowds in building and establishing knowledge.

I’m a big believer in the power of functional (or wise) groups to make better decisions than even the most talented individuals. I learned this first-hand years ago when I took LDP at the Center for Creative Leadership and we did a survival exercise similar to the one detailed in table 4 of this document. In our exercise, every individual — including a Brigadier General — was outperformed by the group in prioritizing a list of items necessary for wildnerness survival.

So I believe that groups guess jellybean jar counts better than individuals, that PageRank generally works for finding web pages, that feedback (used to) work on eBay (until they said sellers can only say positive things), that Diggs are useful way to identify interesting content, that Wikipedia is a great way to build an encyclopedia (particularly a technology one), and generally most of the other stuff I’m supposed to believe as good, web 2.0, Silicon Valley guy.

I believe this so much that we invited James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, to keynote our user conference coming soon on May 12-14, 2009. So I’m on board with the program.

But I also wonder about the opposite, what I’ll call The Madness of Mobs. From financial bubbles to looters to Spring Breakers to a dozen other examples, we can all find examples of where everything cuts exactly the opposite way: where a wise crowd transforms to a mad mob.

So I was quite interested to find this article, Swine Flu: Twitter’s Power to Misinform, which talks precisely about how the “mass brain” of Twitter appears to be shorting out when it comes to the topic of swine flu. Excerpt (edited for brevity, and bolding mine):

Thus, Unlike basic internet search — which has been already been used by Google to track flu trends — Twitter has introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn, too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one’s friends do, or simply gain more popularity.

In such situations this, there is some pathological about people wanting to post yet another status update containing the coveted most-searched words – only for the sake of gaining more people to follow them. And yet the bottom line is that tracking the frequency of Twitter mentions of swine flu as a means of predicting anything thus becomes useless. (However, there are plenty of non-Twitter options summed up nicely on Mashable)

Hum. I should probably cop a maybe-guilty plea on blogging on swine flu. Like moths to a flame, we bloggers are drawn to hot topics.

The article continues:

If you think that my concerns about context are overblown, here are just a few status updates from random Twitter users:

I’m concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare?

In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town….SWINE FLU = DANGER

Good grief this swine flu thing is getting serious. 8/9 specimens tested were prelim positive in NYC. so that’s Tx, Mexico and now Nyc.

Be careful of the swine flu!!!! (may lead to global epidemic) Outbreak in Mexico. 62 deaths so far!! Don’t eat pork from Mexico!!

Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people….beef and chicken have always been meats of choice

Be careful…Swine Flu is not only in Mexico now. 8 cases in the States. Pig = Don’t eat

If my reading list on Twitter was only restricted to the individuals who had produced the posts above, by now I would be extremely scared … In moments like this, one is tempted to lament the death of broadcasting, for it seems that the information from expert sources should probably be prioritized over everything else.

Now, I’m pretty sure the counter-arguments to The Madness of Mobs goes like this:

  • Not all groups are wise. The Wisdom of Crowds relies of wise groups.
  • You can’t cherry-pick the scariest contributions to argue that The Wisdom of Crowds doesn’t work. Much as the abortion page on Wikipedia is the result of a rugby scrum of passionate, oppositional forces, so will be the mass brain of Twitter on swine flu. You need to look at the whole picture.

In fact, Surowiecki outlines failures of crowd intelligence and finds root causes which include groups that are too homogeneous, too emotional, too centralized, too divided, and too imitative.

Hopefully, we’ll hear more from Jim on this topic at the user conference and, in the meantime, before enslaving yourself to The Wisdom of Crowds, ponder if your crowd is a wise one, and whether you’re actually dealing with The Madness of Mobs.

Related Information / Stories

Swine Flu Tracker Map

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

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