Reflections on Click! by James Surowiecki

Much of the critical reception of Click! has focused, understandably, on the artistic quality of the photographs that the crowd liked best, with a number of critics making predictably dismissive comments about the mainstream nature of the favored pictures (and of the show as a whole). This take on Click! fits squarely into a long tradition of art-historical arguments around mass vs. elite taste, connoisseurship, and so on. And these kinds of arguments are inevitable—you can’t (nor would you want to) look at an art show and not make judgments about the quality of the work in it. But I do think that some of the critical reactions to the show have been inflected by a pre-existing assumption that group judgments would necessarily be ordinary. And that assumption has perhaps made it harder to see a couple of the most interesting things about the show.

The first thing that I think makes Click! so intriguing for the future is the way the voting system worked. One of the reasons why group judgments are often so mediocre (or so volatile) is that they often rely on very crude evaluation processes, processes that foster bandwagon effects—when things get more popular simply because they’re already popular—and that are often easily gamed. A classic example would be American Idol, where members of the voting crowd generally register their opinion on only one contestant —the one they vote for—and where people can vote as many times as they want for the same person.

Click!’s system, by contrast, was designed to get around these problems. Because people could only rate each picture once, and because they couldn’t go directly to a given photo, the system was hard (if not impossible) to game. Even more important, because people didn’t know how others had voted, each person’s rating reflected his or her own judgment, uninfluenced by the opinion of others. That independence of judgment is key to the wisdom of crowds. And since the contest was run over the Net, it was also able to tap the knowledge of a relatively diverse crowd, both in terms of location and expertise. It’s true that not every person who voted looked at every picture in the contest (in fact, no one outside the museum may have done that). But because the crowd was diverse enough and big enough (so that a sizeable number of people did look at each photo), and because the selection that each person looked at was random, this probably had little or no effect on the final outcome – effectively, the result is similar to what it would have been had everyone looked at every picture. Unlike most attempts to measure popular taste, then, Click! reflects the real collective judgment of the crowd.

But is that collective judgment wise? Well, there’s no real way to answer that, since there’s no objective standard to measure the crowd’s judgment against. (That’s one reason I deliberately avoided writing about art in The Wisdom of Crowds.) But I do think it’s intriguing that there was so much overlap in Click! between the crowd’s judgment and the judgment of the experts. I think if you’d asked most people before the show, they would have said that there would have been a massive difference between the favorite choices of a diverse crowd of people and the favorite choices of people with artistic or art-historical backgrounds. But when you look at the top ten favorites of voters as a whole, and at the favorites of the different subgroups, what you find is that they’re actually not that different. Many photographs show up on all or most of the lists. To me, this is really the most striking result of the show, because it suggests (though it doesn’t prove) that at least in some mediums, the gap between popular and elite taste may be smaller than we think. It also, I think, suggests that the places for tapping the collective intelligence of diverse crowds are wider than we might imagine.