Wednesday, January 9, 2008
On the wisdom of crowds
picture from www.mindfully.org
One of my favourite fairytales is Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. You know the script: a vain emperor is duped by rogue tailors, who convince him of the sartorial elegance of the new (non-existent) clothes they've fashioned for him. All but the stupidest of people would see the quality and magnificence of the cloth, they assure him. As he parades through the streets, naked, the crowd is taken in by the myth, wildly praising his attire - no one wants to appear to be a chump. Only one boy cries out that the emperor is stark naked and the truth quickly spreads by word of mouth.
First published in 1837, this really is a tale for the web 2.0 generation. It has all our favourite ingredients - the power of a good story, the 'wisdom' of crowds, viral marketing, the antihero who speaks up against authority and the child who's wiser than his elders.
Apart from showing that things haven't changed quite as drastically as we think over the past couple of centuries, the most powerful message for me is that we should never blindly accept accepted wisdom.
There are lots of principles and tenets in marketing and elsewhere that act as useful guides. But the only real wisdom is not to take anything as red. Next time you see a naked emperor, no matter what your friends and colleagues say, call it. Then you'll be the kick ass kid, wise beyond your years.
Mind you, you have to hand it to the emperor. Even when the crowd had turned, he held his head up high. If you're going to do dumb, do it with conviction.