Clay Shirky on Change.gov and Crowd Wisdom

Crowdsourcing, E-participation

David Wilcox reports on a talk Clay Shirky gave at the London School of Economics this past week about collective action in a political context and some of the discussions that have since ensued: Clay Shirky: online crowds aren’t always wise

Clay Shirky, leading commentator on internet technologies and author of Here Comes Everybody, last night backed away from his earlier enthusiasm for the online wisdom of crowds in democratic decision-making. He suggested that Government use of social media should focus more on “small groups of smart people arguing with each other”, than national-scale engagement online.

We’ll, that’s my interpretation. You can listen for yourself … and find more on Twitter from last night and today’s at ICA.

A few years back Clay said that the ability of groups to organise online and challenge conventional engagement was “the glory of this medium”. He now believes we need more checks and balances.

Shirky’s examples include the spread of information following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China and the viral success of the will.i.am song “Yes We Can”). Starting at around 30:30 into the video, Shirky takes a look at Change.gov as an example of “wisdom of crowds instantiated in a political context”. He sees the fact that the call for legalization of medical marijuana ended up being the top-rated item in the Citizen’s Briefing Book as a sign that

… this is another place where certain kinds of special interests can make their feelings known. But it is not the same as saying anything that’s thrown to the top of Change.gov therefore has or should have priority in the president’s queue.

And so the problem we’ve got now isn’t a problem of capability, it’s a problem of legitimacy. Under what circumstances would you take advice from people primarily coordinated on the internet and headed for political action and under what circumstances would you ignore that advice. [...]

But unless there’s a principle by which you can say that all you’re really doing is saying it’s nice that you have this outlet (?) but we’re not going to take it seriously. But then if you go the other extreme and say you have write privileges to the president’s calendar, you can’t do that either. And the only way when we’re in situations where neither extreme solution works is to set up a set of checks and balances and that’s where I think the conversation is going.

A few thoughts as per my earlier comments here and here:

Not every crowd is wise. That realization shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, especially when you consider that the groups that formed during the various e-participation efforts on Change.gov don’t even fit Surowiecki’s list of conditions:

  1. Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  4. Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

By that standard, the groups that formed during the various e-participation efforts on Change.gov clearly weren’t wise. For example, in violation of the second rule above, not only were participants’ choices (aggregate number of votes for, say, an idea) exposed while voting was still in process but ideas were listed in order of popularity. This led to herding, favoring those relatively few ideas that managed to gain an early lead.

Moreover, it is debatable whether the concept of crowd wisdom applies to value judgments in just the same way it seems to apply to factual issues (I don’t remember any examples in Surowiecki’s book that would support the former). Since policy discussions are often comprised of both (they certainly were on Change.gov), I wonder to what extent the theories of crowd wisdom really apply here.

It’s also debatable whether what we saw on Change.gov really amounts to decision making. I’d argue it was some low-level form of general input gathering with ranked preferences for questions and ideas: fairly broad, with little structure and little to no process (and still flawed in many ways). On the actual issues no choices were made.

As far as I know, there was never any commitment on part of the transition team to let the Digg-style voting algorithms employed on Change.gov determine what Obama’s priorities would or should be. Instead, the Citizen’s Briefing Book was intended solely as a compilation of “facts and recommendations to be considered while crafting and enacting policies.” Nothing binding in there, just another channel for public input.

Applying IAP2′s Spectrum of Public Participation, the last two points illustrate that the e-participation efforts on Change.gov can be categorized as inform/consult types, not the more advanced involve/collaborate/empower types, in which case they may have had all the legitimacy they needed.

I generally agree with Shirky  that there are many issues facing efforts such as Change.gov with regard to legitimacy and process, just that a more differentiated analysis is needed to figure out where exactly the challenges lie and what conclusions we should draw. For government to abandon work on large-scale efforts and instead focus on small-group engagement alone seems premature advice at this point.

About the author: Tim Bonnemann is the founder, President and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a digital engagement company based in San José, California (USA).

3 comments… add one

  • Stephen Buckley Feb 17, 2009

    Tim — Is this a typo? You say “I don’t remember any examples in Surowiecki’s book ..”

    I think you meant to say “Shirky”. Not a big deal, but it threw me off for a minute when I read it.

    I agree that, just like in face-to-face meetings, the online format needs to favor moderation, not immoderation.

    In other words, there has to be a mechanism built into the format that makes it easy to moderate those people who are immoderate, i.e., those who want to direct the discussion in a way that favors their preconceptions.

  • Tim Feb 17, 2009

    No, not a typo. I did mean Surowiecki’s book (The Wisdom of Crowds). The examples I remember reading all refer to how crowd wisdom is applied to factual issues, not value statements.

  • Tim Jul 28, 2009

    Manual trackback:

    This blog post was quoted in PublicAgenda’s paper “Promising Practices in Online Engagement” (PDF download).

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