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The Wisdom of Crowds

In August of 2007, Roger Cohen used his column in The New York Times to muse on the new Internet-driven phenomenon of replacing editorial judgement about what news (or cultural artifacts or art or anything else) is important with a crowd-sourced judgement based on popularity. He was not altogether convinced it was a good thing, though he grudgingly admitted it was probably and inevitably the coming thing.  My take on it is less ambiguous….

9 August 2007

Ref: your column, “Is There Wisdom in Crowds?”

Mr. Cohen:

I’m reminded of a line from the old British sitcom, Yes, Minister (or perhaps it was from Yes, Prime Minister; I can’t remember whether it happened before or after his unintentional elevation). During an argument over whether he should make a decision based on principle or by following the latest poll results, the consummate politician declared:

I am their leader! I must follow them!

What we miss in the new world of journalism is the same thing we miss in the new world of politics: leadership.

Just as (ideally) it is the job of our Senators (and particularly of the President) to tell us what policies we should pursue (and it is the job of Congressmen to push back — to tell the Senators and the President what policies we prefer), it is the job of an Editor to tell us what stories we should pay attention to, notwithstanding our own unenlightened preferences.

Fear a world in which responsible editors have become as rare as responsible politicians. We might all get what we want — and find ourselves very sorry, indeed, for our good fortune.

© Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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