The Banality of Crowds

The other day, my wife told me a story that struck me as a great parable about exploratory search–that is, if true stories qualify as parables.

It was lunch time and she was facing a problem familiar to many of us city dwellers (well, New Yorkers at least): she wanted to find some place interesting to eat among the overwhelming set of options. She decided on a new approach–her version of asking “What Would Google Do?“.

She saw a couple exiting an office building and decided to follow them (at a discreet distance) to their lunch spot. She ended up at…McDonald’s. And no, I didn’t make this up, much as I might have tried!

While pop philosophers and psychologists have made much of the “wisdom of crowds“, there’s a dark side: crowds rarely come up with anything interesting. Outsourcing your decisions to a crowd may yield a satisficing decision, but don’t get your hopes up for more.

Granted, there’s more than one way to crowdsource: no one says that you have to go with a majority vote, or to follow someone at random. But leveraging the wisdom of a crowd in a more meaningful way requires a means to comprehend the diversity of views among the individuals that comprise that crowd.

In other words, you need exploratory search.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

8 replies on “The Banality of Crowds”

this is like a skit out of seinfeld where an information-retriever gives stand-up a shot. my kind of humor, actually.

this is why i think tag clouds or well-executed association maps that take into account the frequency and uniqueness of associations with a given term/query (ideally, taking into account source and style) are great launching points for understanding user-generated media (‘your buzz’). herd mentality blinds us from the interesting, albeit often weak signals.

now, in defense of psychologists… yes there is wisdom to be sought in crowds, but we’re well aware of groupthink, pluralistic ignorance, and social loafing.


I really like sites like Netflix or GoodReads where you get updates on what your friends have liked. “Oh, I noticed you gave that 5 stars. What was it like?” Crowds that I’m close to mean a helluva lot more than random people whose taste I can’t evaluate relative to my own.


You’re mentioning the always-present drawback of rating-based systems: what a lot of people like must be good. That’s why on you have the anyways-popular music on top of the ranking. Same holds for chart shows on the radio or any kind of thing on websites with ratings done by users.
In the restaurant case, you could also just look at the long tail of the results to find at least some places that are more unusual.


Indeed. But the long tail mixes the interestingly unusual with the deservedly unpopular. I’d like tools to help me figure out which is which, in accordance with my personal tastes and momentary whims. Not a mind reader, but a concierge.


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