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Simply Speaking: Wisdom of crowds leading to a 'reputation' for a brand, institution or individual

Reputation is the main output of collective intelligence. But who builds the reputation of the reputation builders? Learn how brands gain a reputation and how that is more important than ever before in today’s information dense world.

By  Shubhranshu SinghJul 6, 2022 9:41 AM
Simply Speaking: Wisdom of crowds leading to a 'reputation' for a brand, institution or individual
Rational man is guided not by 'information ', but by 'reputation’ which is pre-filtered, pre-evaluated and already commented upon by others. (Representational image: Susan Q Yin via Unsplash)

The harder something is to verify, the stronger our urge to seek verification. The tougher it is to measure something, the keener we are on doing it. We live with information overload. As we are uncertain about the content of information we receive, we highly value the opinions of others in order to verify the credibility of such content. This reliance can make us gullible. We must strive to stay aware of the biases that the design of such platforms or experts, whether technical, sociological or institutional. There is a neglected contradiction of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our world of brands, namely that the greater the amount of information in circulation, the more we rely on so-called expertise to evaluate it.

The glaring paradox emerges from the fact that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge does not empower us or make us more intelligent or better informed. Information scientists call such a state ‘cognitive autonomy’. The converse is ‘cognitive dependence’. The emergence of tech and tools is making us dependent not autonomous. We are rendered more dependent on other people's judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

The major revolutions in human society have been about distribution of memory - the invention of writing, printing, telegraph, radio, television and now the internet. Printing changed the configuration of the "informational pyramid" in the diffusion of knowledge. Like printing, the Web is a device for redistributing cultural memory within and across a population. It is active, not passive ,and available at near zero costs and at the speed of light. The Internet has made possible a form of aggregation that simply did not exist before its invention and worldwide diffusion. Seen from a historical perspective, the Web is a major revolution in the storage, dissemination, and retrieval of information. Brands are a fully intact subculture within it.

With the advent of technologies that automate the functions of accessing and recovering memory, such as search engines and knowledge-management systems, meta-memory has become part of external memory. The actions of users leave a trace in the system that is immediately reusable. The combination may easily be displayed in a ranked ordering that informs and influences the users' future preferences and actions. The corpus of knowledge available on the Web-built and maintained by its users' individual behaviors-is automatically filtered by systems that aggregate these behaviors. This is made available to other users and commercially exploited like for advertising to the right folks.

Netflix, Amazon, Google feeds such as news are top examples of aggregated user preferences and making of correlation. This is a unique feature of these interactive systems, in which new categories are created by automatically transforming initially uncoordinated human actions into easily understandable rankings. That is reputation by one definition. Ever wondered why we have ‘top selling’ authors not ‘best writing’ authors!

Rational Man is guided not by 'information ', but by 'reputation’ which is pre-filtered, pre-evaluated and already commented upon by others. Reputation is the main output of collective intelligence today. But who builds the reputation of the reputation builders? Is it based on their track record, fame or intellectual attainments? We may be reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people who are unknown to us. The paradigm shift to collective reputation building means that all marketers should be competent at figuring the reputational pathways, understand the intentions of those who construct it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility. Whenever we are at the point of accepting or rejecting new information, we should ask ourselves:

Where does it come from? Does the source have a good reputation?  Who are the authorities who believe it?  What are my reasons for deferring to these authorities? 

Such questions will help us to get a better grip on reality than trying to directly check the reliability of the information at source. In a hyper specialised world of knowledge, it makes no sense to try to investigate on our own, for example, the possible correlation between vaccines and worsening of cardiovascular disease. It would be a waste of time, and probably our conclusions would not be accurate. In the reputation age, our critical appraisals should be directed not at the content of information but rather at the social network of relations that has shaped that content and given it a certain deserved or undeserved 'rank' in our system of knowledge.

What is reputation? It is not one thing but many. It is a second ego. It serves as a conveyed signal. It is an ‘opinion of opinion’ that stabilizes or sometimes destabilizes our social identity. Reputation is also a motivation for action. It is a sensible system for classifying information. It is a ranking based on the authority of others that helps guide our judgments.

The control we wield over our reputation is partial and precarious. We can never fully master or govern our reputation. It is a dynamic construct, and the lines are forever moving.

Like it or not we cannot live without it. Understanding our reputation, allows us to know our social reflection and reordering the way we see ourselves in response to the way others see us. When we first meet a new domain of learning, our access to facts is inevitably determined by the opinions, values, and preferences of others. As new communication technologies make it increasingly easy to venture into new domains of knowledge, this dependency on the prejudices or prejudgments of others should always be kept in mind.

The Web represents a radical transformation in our access to knowledge, but by integrating evaluation and reputation into information-retrieval systems, using search algorithms based on the ranking of information, the Web has also changed the forms, object domains, disciplines, and ways in which these objects of knowledge are constructed.

With the extraordinary ability of Web 2.0 to collect and synthesize socially decentralized information in order to achieve intelligent results, the very idea of collective intelligence has entered a new phase. Our control over how info is aggregated by these new collectively intelligent systems is poor, and individual or institutional capacities for intervening in the design of the aggregation process are often very limited.

In his book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, James Surowiecki discusses different designs for capturing collective wisdom. In his assessment, the success of the Web is due to its capacity to provide not so much a potentially infinite system for information storage but rather a giant network of ranking and rating systems in which information is valued only because it has been previously filtered by other people. This passion for constructing evaluative hierarchies is an all-important characteristic of collective intelligence. That is why listicles and ‘top 10 of anything at all’ are such hits online.

Surowiecki's book contains an illuminating list of conditions that must be fulfilled before we can properly speak of a wise crowd. Not any and every crowd is a wise crowd. In order to avoid notorious difficulties such as group polarization, information cascades, and conformism, a group must display certain features that make it a potentially intelligent entity.

Four main characteristics proposed are: Diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information) Independence (people's opinions are not determined by others) Decentralization (people can draw on local knowledge) Aggregation (presence of mechanisms that turn individual judgments into collective decisions).

In an information-dense environment, where sources are constantly competing to attract attention and the option of direct verification of the information's reliability is not available at reasonable costs, evaluation and rankings provide an invaluable shortcut for gaining access to usable information.

The classifications and rankings that emerge are based on significant patterns of aggregated preferences through individual interactions with the system. Structured as a social network, the Web contains plentiful information about its users' preferences and habits. Second-generation search engines, such as Google, are able to exploit this structure in order to gain information about how knowledge is distributed around the world. But the Web is no democracy, and votes do not all possess the same weight in determining winners and losers. The Web is an "aristocratic" net to use an expression of social network theorists, in which "the rich get richer" and the more links you accumulate the higher is the probability that you will receive even more. This disparity of weights creates a ``reputational landscape" that informs the result of any query.

The structure of the Web as a social network was structurally revealed in 2000 by mathematician Jon Kleinberg. Today, search engines that rely on this kind of algorithm also integrate knowledge on user behavior and allow much more manipulation and biased usage. In recent years, reputation systems have witnessed a real economic explosion: systems such as Airbnb.com, which rents apartments between individuals from all over the world, thrive through controlled management of social information generated by the reputation of the hosts.

Several research projects have demonstrated that, in such systems, reputation functions as a kind of "money." Biologist Manfred Milinski, a pioneer in the study of the evolutionary advantages of reputation, has carried out a series of experiments showing that reputation is critical to the economic survival of these systems.

The reputation gained in games of indirect reciprocity can be transmitted as social information in the form of gossip. The fascinating correlation discovered by these researchers is that the more people talk about you, the more your reputation and credibility increase. Paradoxically, the risk of the impact of negative gossip is reduced by the sheer volume of gossip.

James Madison wrote, 'Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob'. The internet is merely amplifying the conditions under which many minds can be wiser than one. Be it the information markets, jury deliberations, wisdom of markets or the use of diversity as mechanisms for improving collective decisions, technology is making collective inputs faster, cheaper, better. At the same time, consider consumer irrationality and paradoxes of aggregation which clearly undermine the wisdom of groups and you will see that man will remain an irrational animal.

Implicitly or explicitly, this offers guidance and warnings to marketers and citizens at large. Reputedly, that is a big deal!

Note to readers: I'm intrigued by information such as that eight percent of the population is left-handed, that giraffes only sleep five minutes every twenty-four hours and so on which is useless but important! In the eighteenth century, German aristocrats kept glass-fronted cabinets which displayed curios. They called it Wunderkammern. This column is some such thing. In an unmarked field it is easy to wander… I want to open windows to glimpse views rather than a whodunnit or a how-to-do-it. I have a licence to be long or short. To be structured or abrupt. This column has no beginning, middle or end. It's a journey without a destination. Simply speaking...

First Published on Jul 6, 2022 9:41 AM