On Reddit and the Wisdom of Crowds

James Surowiecki’s analysis of Reddit’s crowdsourcing ability in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject:

You can certainly fault the Redditors for not recognizing the limits of their own knowledge and for jumping to conclusions (even if a good deal of that jumping was done by the national press). But this isn’t a failing that’s specific to Reddit—on the contrary, official investigations fall prey to it all the time. Richard Jewell, of course, was seized on almost immediately by authorities as a prime suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing, and continued to be treated as such for months before being cleared. The government investigated and harassed Steven Hatfill for years in connection with the 2001 anthrax mailings, before finally backing down. And the F.B.I., on the basis of faulty fingerprint analysis, accused Brandon Mayfield, a Portland lawyer, of assisting with the train bombings in Madrid in 2004; arrested him; and refused to acknowledge its mistake for weeks after Spanish authorities had definitively cleared him. These misidentifications were far more damaging and longer-lasting than anything Reddit did last week, yet one would hardly take them as per se evidence that the F.B.I. should stop investigating crimes.

I think this is an essential point:

The problem from Reddit’s perspective, of course, is that this method of sleuthing would be far less exciting for users, and would probably generate less traffic, than its current free-for-all approach. The point of the “find-the-bombers” subthread, after all, wasn’t just to find the bombers—it was also to connect and talk with others, and to feel like you were part of a virtual community.

Perhaps the secondary goal of Reddit was not to find the bombers, but to allow people to connect with one another after the traumatic event. In a way, participating in Reddit was a way of reconciling the event (and for some, a way to heal).

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Related: Alexis Madrigal’s piece on how misinformation spread on Reddit.

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