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The Madness of Crowds

Somebody Yelp Me

For a guy who doesn’t get terribly excited about hamburgers or, for that matter, fast food, how is it that I deliberately went out of my way to find one of the worst fast food hamburgers I have ever eaten? I blame crowdsourcing. More specifically, I blame Yelp.

In many ways user review websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor are brilliant. Their millions of members review far more locations than a professional opinion writer ever could. In fact, it’s hard to find something in the world these days that hasn’t been assigned a specific number of stars. And unlike the magazine or guidebook reviews of old, these never go stale because they’re updated continuously.

They’re also supposed to be better. Instead of turning to a crusty old food critic, Yelp relies on “the wisdom of crowds” for its rankings. In theory, the collective view of a large population is better than that of a single individual, even a very knowledgeable one. This idea is the basis for everything from the efficiency of capital markets to Wikipedia. A million internet users, after all, can’t be wrong.

Why, then, are they so often wrong?

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