The Corruption of Crowds

I’m not fond of the notion that the “crowds” are inherently “wise.” Sure, InTrade works pretty well. But that only tells us that crowds are pretty good at predicting binary outcomes like election results. For much else, I’m willing to ignore the crowds. That we should receive restaurant recommendations from Yelp! or get our book reviews from Amazon commenters is anathema to seeking out reliable criticism. Democracy works in politics because a state has a responsibility to all its citizens; it fails in criticism because art and fine dining and music have a responsibility only to themselves. Put another way, there’s usually a difference between “crowd-pleaser” and “critical success.”

But there’s also another problem with the “wisdom of crowds“: The crowds can be bought. While a single reviewer will lose credibility if it emerges that he is flacking for someone (see Armstrong Williams and No Child Left Behind), there’s no telling who among our citizen critics is for real.

Take Seth Stevenson’s amusing Slate piece from this week, in which he revealed that he had bought upwards of 25,000 Twitter followers from a dealer. While it’s unclear that the public ranks journalists by their Klout scores, potential employers certainly do. A reporter’s ability to reach readers and corral them back to a publication’s website can make or break a job application. But as sites like BuzzFeed and TMZ testify, the ability to drive content is not necessarily a measure of quality journalism.

Stevenson’s stunt was admittedly rather benign, but there are shadier tricks being played. In August the New York Times reported on the kingpin of Amazon’s review-selling business, Todd Rutherford. At his empire’s height, Rutherford was taking in $28,000 a month to write glowing five-star book reviews for random authors whose books he had barely read. It turns out Rutherford wasn’t alone.

“The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews,” said Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose 2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars. “But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

The author goes on:

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

Given our reliance upon social networking for the sharing of information, combined with our increasingly unwillingness to pay for things, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, Jennifer Egan already anticipated the darker side of social media in her 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. At the novel’s climax, a PR specialist makes a concert go viral by paying someone to hype it, using a social media tool called a “parrot.” If “reach” and “virality” are the coins of the information age realm, palms will inevitable be greased, and crowd-sourcing may lose whatever democratic appeal it had.

Now, please “like” this post.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.