Social media has been around for a few years, and has now reached the stage where people are starting to forecast its impending demise. They cite the saturation of Facebook memberships in some Western countries, and indeed its contraction in a few of them. David Cameron has led the vocal backlash against the perceived misuse of social networking, after the recent riots and looting in the UK. But many are still only just “taking their seat on the cluetrain”, and arguing for a more user-focused approach. Indeed, the course I run at Ravensbourne is the first BA in the UK to focus on teaching social media management, although there has been a Master’s in Birmingham City on the subject for a couple of years now.
Like so many technologies or cultural developments before it, the rise of social networking, user-generated content, and a more transparent, sharing approach to corporate management has strong elements of fashion about it. This is definitely a phase in history, which will move on eventually. But it’s also clearly a very potent phenomenon. Wikipedia is probably the most high-profile example of how powerful the wisdom of crowds can be, and the one most frequently cited. It may not be perfect, but Wikipedia now has useful entries on most subjects, and if someone wilfully misrepresents something, it will usually be brought closer to the truth in just a few minutes.
So now every trendy manager is attempting to harness the wisdom of crowds. Instead of dictating to their employees, they ask their opinion, and subcontract the decision-making process to them. Every successful company now uses blogging, forum-based support groups and Facebook pages to communicate with its customers, gauge their opinions of new products, and handle complaints. This is a much better situation than trying to force unpopular policies or services down people’s throats. The demise of the Soviet Union decades ago showed that you can’t make people accept things by telling them the situation is great when the means are available to see that it’s not. Eventually, they realise they are being conned, fight back, and the Berlin wall falls.
But, on the other hand, culture is not driven forward purely by the wisdom of crowds. Wikipedia’s content may have come from its users, but the idea for the site itself wasn’t a request from the masses. We didn’t tell Apple we wanted the iPhone or iPad. In fact, smartphones remained a niche market and the tablet concept had already failed a couple of times beforehand. Indeed, the masses had already turned their noses up at tablet computing. But Apple came up with smartphone and tablet designs which it thought people would want. And it was right. Sure, their engineers listened to users during the design process. But we didn’t know we wanted these devices until Apple came up with them.
So, whilst the trend towards tranparency and letting users contribute has been the most important techno-cultural development of the 21st century thus far, it’s not a replacement for the traditional process of coming up with a good idea in the first place. The crowd can help us find out if an idea is truly good, or develop it so it’s better, and someone amongst them may even suggest the beginnings of the next big thing. But Apple didn’t become the largest consumer electronics company in the world by getting its users to design its products, and Google still keeps its core technologies very secret indeed. The wisdom of crowds is not an excuse for no longer coming up with ideas yourself, as some managers appear to think it is. It’s a quicker, more accurate way of ensuring they are the right ideas to continue developing.