When I was in college I took a very interesting course on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of crowds. We studied crowd mentality both in psychology and politics. We looked at how crowds formed and what happened when they did.
Most of what we studied was the destructive nature of the crowd (or mob). We looked at Nazi Germany, lynch mobs in the South, and other examples of destruction caused by crowds. (Side note: The Wave (Die Welle) is a fantastic movie on the subject). The conclusion was that mobs can be manipulated to do harm by a few powerful voices. Lost in a mob, an otherwise reasonable human being might lose his or her moral compass.
It is ironic then that a few years later I am working on harnessing the power of crowds to do good (or at least trying to). I guess I did a bit of a 180 on that one. But, the question does still remain: what happens when the crowd is wrong?
I'm not talking about insanely wrong as in the case of Nazi Germany, but let's take the example of crowdsourcing. Companies are increasingly using crowdsourcing to design products and solutions. I love the idea of a collaborative design process. But, what happens, I wonder, when the consumer doesn't know what they want or need? What happens when the crowd sources and designs something that they don't need? Does that in fact stifle innovation?
We've all heard the famous Steve Jobs quote: "It's not the consumer's job to know what they want," in response to a question about market research for the iPad. If the iPad had been crowdsourced it never would have been invented because let's face it – none of us really needed an iPad. If it had been crowdfunded, it probably would not have reached its goal. And yet, 3 years later it is one of the most successful and disruptive technologies on the market.
I guess what I'm getting at is that the crowd doesn't always know what it wants and it sure as hell isn't always right. Harnessing the power of the crowd is incredible and it can and will lead to amazing results. But we will always need a few innovators to show us what it is we truly need.