Mar 28, 2010

A typology of Crowds

A typology of crowds

by Nick Carr

Over the last few days, I've been involved in an email discussion on "The Crowd," which will be excerpted on PBS's Digital Nation site. One thing that has long bothered me about discussions of online crowds is that they tend to yoke lots of different sorts of groups together under a single rubric. Important differences end up being glossed over.

With that in mind, I've been trying to think through the various forms that online crowds take. As a rough starting point, I came up with four:

"Social production crowd": consists of a large group of individuals who lend their distinct talents to the creation of some product like Wikipedia or Linux.

"Averaging crowd": acts essentially as a survey group, providing an average judgment about some complex matter that, in some cases, is more accurate than the judgment of any one individual (the crowd behind prediction markets like the Iowa Electronic Markets, not to mention the stock market and other financial exchanges).

"Data mine crowd": a large group that, through its actions but usually without the explicit knowledge of its members, produces a set of behavioral data that can be collected and analyzed in order to gain insight into behavioral or market patterns (the crowd that, for instance, feeds Google's search algorithm and Amazon's recommendation system).

"Networking crowd": a group that trades information through a shared communication system such as the phone network or Facebook or Twitter.

Clay Shirky, who is also participating in the discussion, suggested a fifth crowd type for this list:

"Transactional crowd": a group used to instigate and coordinate what are mainly or solely point-to-point transactions, such as the type of crowd gathered by, eBay, Innocentive, LinkedIn and similar services. (I would think that contests like the Netflix Prize also fall into this category.)

Each of these "crowds" (and there are surely others) has its own unique characteristics and its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some crowds, for instance, gain their usefulness from the individual talents of their members. Others (notably the "averaging" sort) gain their usefulness by essentially filtering out those individual talents. Some crowds might be called "hives," which implies some degree of individual unconsciousness about how one's work or behavior fits into the larger whole, while others aren't anything like mindless hives. Some crowds become more useful as they get bigger; others work best when kept to a small scale. "Crowdsourcing" and its cousin "digital sharecropping" may draw on any or all of the different types of crowds, to various effects and with various ethical implications.

As this nascent typology indicates, there's not really any such thing as "The Crowd."

UPDATE: Tom Lord, in a comment, suggests a sixth category:

"Event crowd": A group organized through online communication for a particular event, which can take place either online or in the real world and may have a political, social, aesthetic, or other purpose.

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