How to do a Crowd

I work for a company that makes crowds for a living. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered (with the help of my colleagues) along the way:

  1. Crowds are only useful when the quality of the crowd output improves as the size of the crowd improves. It is easy to create big groups of people, but far more difficult to get them to scale usefully. The key thing seems to be providing some mechanism that allows crowd members to observe the behaviour and actions of other participants as part of the core activity of the crowd.
  2. Crowds can very easily turn into mobs. A mob, in this context, is any crowd which no longer performs the function for which it was originally created. It goes off instead on some tangent which may or may not be actually destructive, but at best isn’t creating much value. You almost always get  a mob when you fail to build in some control function that lets crowd participants evaluate each other against some common standard of behaviour. The control function also has to have some way of advertising to everyone how well each individual participant is complying with the standard of behaviour.
  3. Crowds have cultures and traditions. They’re set by the very earliest members who join. Whatever that first small group of people does, is what the whole crowd is going to from then on. It is usually simpler to throw away your crowd and start again if you want to change these established cultures and traditions.
  4. Crowds have a magic number of participants. Below the number, they’re just discussions. Above the number, useful behaviours start to emerge as group dynamics begin to work. The magic number is usually much larger than you’d expect. And getting a crowd to that number is very hard work.
  5. If you’re building a crowd, recruitment of members before the magic number is the number one challenge you’ll face. Until group dynamics start, crowd participants get little value from staying around, so you have to do things to make them stay.
  6. Crowds are surprising. They’ll hardly ever do what’s expected. If you want predictable, you don’t want a crowd.
  7. Crowds aggregate and average. Where there is a distribution of possible outcomes, they’ll take the position closest to the mean. Also, if data can be aggregated to a higher level of abstraction, they’ll tend to do that too. Individuals won’t display this behaviour, of course, but the crowd does it automatically.
  8. Crowds are only capable of doing three different things: recruiting new members (virality), going to the same place as everyone else (herding), and creating new knowledge from trials or observation (emergent wisdom).
  9. Whatever you’re designing, you really want to have the crowd do all three things if you want to maximise your chances of getting the outcome you want.
  10. Crowds are living, breathing things. They require care and feeding, like a garden. The constant tending is expensive and time consuming, but necessary. Fail at this, and your crowd will either die from attrition or turn into a mob from lack of attention.

8 Responses to“How to do a Crowd”

  1. David Marshall
    August 23, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Nice post James. With regards to culture, do you think you can reliably give the initial culture direction by the design of your platform? Could you avoid throwing away the crowd by changing design?

    • James Gardner
      August 24, 2011 at 6:23 am #

      I think the design of the platform is important, yes. But even more important, in my view, is the way the crowd behaves at the start. That’s set by how the initial leaders behave in the crowd. So I always tell everyone that when you’re starting a crowd, it is important to also *be* part of the crowd too.

      • August 25, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

        James, thank you the article and for the eye-opening provocative speech at the future of money event. While you are in Moscow, is there any possibility to meet and talk on crowdsourcing & open inovation development in Russia? I guess there is a huge potential market evolving (especially in regions). And by the way  there are some cognitive technologies developed by Russian researchers that might be useful for Spigit products.

        If there is an opportunity to meet, please send me a message on dm.safronov@gmail.com or call +7(904)0670272. If not, then maybe later in Skype =)  Thanks!

        • August 26, 2011 at 7:45 am #

          Dmitry,

          I sent you a text last night, but I think it must not have reached you.

          Thank you so much for your great comments. It was a real pleasure to be at Strelka last night and I’m really glad you liked my material. Also, thanks for the comments here.

          I’d be delighted to do a call at your convenience. I expect to be back in Moscow in the next month.

          If you want to set up a time, my diary is online, and you can choose the time that suits you here:

          http://www.doodle.com/jgardner

          Thanks so much for the feedback.

  2. Paul Johnston
    August 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    James – great post. Can you give a few examples that show what you can do when you build a crowd in the right way? Sorry if I should be aware of this from the rest of your work, but a few helpful pointers to examples would be great 🙂

  3. February 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Hey man, forget about these people telling you to go check out Different web sites. I’ve been around the Car Biz since I was 12 and I have experience with this kind of thing. I’m not sure exactly how it works in Canada, but In the USA, it’s legally impossible for you to Sign a Legally Binding Contract. NOW, if it IS legal in Canada to sign a Contract, then I would take 6 months to a year of your Pay Stubs, or some kinda of proof or your Income, and take it to a Dealer, preferably one that specializes in No Credit, and Second Chance Credit Dealers. The interest rate WILL be higher but it will help you develop Credit and will look good for the future. I’m 19 so I understand that you want to ride in only the hottest ride…..BUT, I’ve been there and in the long run it’s just not worth it….Things can go wrong FAST. Just get something sporty and clean that will get you where you need to be. Pay it off and move on to what you REALLY want. That’s my advice coming from someone who knows the car biz and is also young.

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  1. What I’ve been reading | DavePress - August 25, 2011

    […] How to do a Crowd | Innovator Inside – For crowds, read communities, groups, whatever. Good stuff. […]

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