Hacking the Wisdom of Crowds

In the computer world, hacking refers to coming up with an elegant and novel way of achieving something with software that subverts some previous constraint.   In recent years, computer hacking has inspired a new term called life hacking, which Wikipedia defines as “anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.”

For example, on a website devoted to life hacking you can learn how to:

I’ve been studying the “wisdom of crowds” theory for several years now, and the more I understand its power, the more ways I’ve found to use it as a life hack.

Example 1:   Choosing an iPhone app

Recently I was trying to choose an iPhone app that would let me remotely access my computer screen from my phone.  I narrowed the field to three contenders that all seemed to offer the desired functionality:

  • Jaadu VNC ($24.99)
  • LogMeIn Ignition ($29.99)
  • RemoteHD ($7.99)

I didn’t want to spend time doing a side-by-side feature comparison of these apps, so I took a shortcut:  the wisdom of crowds.  The Apple App Store is kind enough to include customer reviews and ratings for every product that it sells. Here’s how the three products compared:

Jaadu VNC




LogMeIn Ignition

Amazon Ratings


Amazon remoteHD Ratings


I decided to buy Jaadu VNC.  Here’s why:

  • Jaadu has more ratings than either of the other two products.  Even though its average rating is a half-star lower than LogMeIn Ignition, I consider that too close to call.  It’s also $5 cheaper.
  • RemoteHD is far less expensive than the other two, but it has less than 15% as many rating than Jaadu.

I realize that running a popularity contest to make my decision appears a bit shallow and unscientific, but if you trust the wisdom of crowds, you know that the popular answer is usually the best answer as long as the four criteria of a wise crowd are met.  I’ve been very happy with the Jaadu product.

Example 2:   Finding articles to read online

I’m a voracious reader, but since I have relatively little time to devote to reading most days, I need a method for quickly determining which articles deserve my attention.  Those unfamiliar with the wisdom of crowds may just read whatever appears on the homepage of nytimes.com, but I don’t trust a few editors in New York to determine what I should read.  I trust the crowd.

I’m a big fan of Digg, a website setup to help people “discover and share content from anywhere on the web.”  Digg highlights the best online content as voted on by its users.  You won’t find editors at Digg — just a place where people can collectively determine the value of online content.  Ah, the wisdom of crowds at work.

Without fail, those articles with a lot of “diggs” are great reading.  Try it sometime.

Example 3:   Where to eat lunch

I never eat at a restaurant that isn’t already busy.  For a restaurant, being busy is both a cause and an effect of good food.  It’s a cause because a busy restaurant must turn over its food inventory more quickly, thus the food that arrives on your plate is fresher.  It’s an effect because restaurants without good food don’t get busy.

This sounds a bit obvious, but I’m always surprised how people will try out an empty restaurant just because they like the signage or a few menu items catch their eye.   Whenever I’ve fallen into that trap I’ve been dissapointed.

You might ask, “But what happens if everyone just follows the crowd?  Couldn’t a bad restaurant randomly get busy because a large party happens to go there and then ‘the crowd’ jumps on the bandwagon?”

This could happen sometimes, but it’s not because the wisdom of crowds has failed.  It’s because one of its four criteria has not been met:  decentralization.   When a large number of restaurant-goers (or stock investors) start to mindlessly follow the crowd, what’s created is a speculative bubble.  These do pop up from time to time, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

So, now you know a few life hacks for buying the right iPhone app, finding good reading material, and choosing a quality restaurant.  Can you think of any other life hacks using the wisdom of crowds?

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