Why Andrew Keen is fundamentally wrong about crowds


Internet dystopian Andrew Keen, author most recently of Digital Vertigo, has just spoken at TheNextWeb Summit and Conference

He and his arguments are intensely annoying because his case is blindly and obtusely one-sided, though it is useful to have his voice to provide a counterpoint to digital utopianism. 

Part of his argument is that we are giving away too much of our identity and personal data. That is absolutely valid, and it is good that people are reminded to think carefully about what they share online.

However Andrew conflates oversharing with the shift to crowds, going so far as to suggest that there is no value in crowds. Yesterday in specific response to my prior Summit presentation on The Future of Crowds Andrew said that all innovation, all new ideas of value, come from brilliant individuals. 

In Andrew’s extreme black and white world the reality of individual genius, which he exemplifies by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, to his mind who innovated separately and not together, implies that there is no value in crowds. The logic in this argument is not just flawed, but non-existent.

I suggest a more inclusive view of the world. Absolutely, individual inspiration is fundamental to human progress and the creation of great art, scientific progress, and successful businesses. At the same time, collective ideas, insights, and work will play an immensely important part in our future. 

As I write in my book Getting Results From Crowds, we need to consider what tasks and functions are and are not appropriate for putting out to crowds. There are some, perhaps many, things that organizations should keep inside. But for many functions there is immense value in going to literally a whole world of talent. 

No organization in the world employs more than 1% of the people working in their domain. While individual inspiration may drive some – but certainly not all – innovations, the reality is that hard work is required to develop these to reality. Well-defined innovation tasks are far better put out to the crowd than done internally, as many of the world’s largest organizations such as IBM, Boeing, and Procter & Gamble have learned.

One of my favorite examples of value from crowds is VizWiz, which enables global crowds to help blind people by lending them their eyes, immediately identifying what is in the world around them.

In Andrew’s stark and dark view of the world, a single example of individual value, or of crowds not being useful in a specific case, implies that crowds never have value, in the face of thousands of counter-examples.

Let’s recognize individual genius, learn where and how crowds can create the most value, and move to an inclusive view of the world in which one important source of value is from tapping the many. Collective intelligence may be very hard to realize, but if we seek to create it, we will find ways.