Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Crowdsourcing Myth and the White House

A while back the Obama administration, in a wild fit of optimism, created We the People, an online forum where any citizen can petition the government on a question, and if sufficient people sign the petition they’ll get a response. Great idea, right? Government needs to be more open and responsive, and this is open to all. It’s a form of crowdsourcing, where citizens with common cause can directly engage with elected officials.

Turns out, the idea is great in theory and absurd in practice, much like crowdsourcing itself. Within weeks of launching We the People petitioners from 50 states were asking to secede from the union, and a petition to build a Star Wars’ Death Star attracted over 34,000 signatures (but was regrettably turned down). The Brit CNN talk show host Piers Morgan, a fierce gun control advocate, was quickly the subject of a petition to have him deported. In response to all this nonsense the White House raised the threshold for getting a response from 25,000 to 100,000 signatures, a move only likely to encourage the crackpots and fringe dwellers even further. The UK governments’ e-petitions site has a 100,000 signature threshold, and still gets petitions attempting to save chocolate bars.

Opening the opinion floodgates is admirable, but we forget that those of us with moderate views are labeled the “silent majority” for a good reason. It’s not that we’re lazy, though that could be true, but that the frenzied extremists are the people who are always going to exert themselves the most. If you doubt me, take a look at the comments on any online coverage about the Obama administrations recent efforts to enact gun control legislation – the ferocity of opinion is itself a great argument for keeping kitchen utensils out of the hands of most Americans, never mind semi-automatic firearms.

Crowdsourcing is a dangerous myth. The wisdom of the crowd is far too easily drowned out by the madness of the masses.