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The Capriciousness of Crowds

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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Jul 20, 2007 2:24:00 AM

Every so often I hear a song on the radio that catches my ear and off I go to iTunes to look it up. This is dangerous because once there, odds are good I'll spend the next hour clicking related links until I find myself staring with glazed eyes at God only knows what twenty times removed from where I started. What Paulina Rubio has to do with delta blues I'm not quite sure, but that's how it goes.

There's a lot of ongoing talk about the power of social media, but in the case of iTunes, it also reveals some interesting limitations. While Amazon's book and product reviews have generally struck me as very well balanced, even when the subject is controversial, reviews of music on iTunes suffer from more grade inflation than a college quarterback majoring in Phys Ed.

To be fair, it's not exclusive to iTunes--CD reviews on Amazon seem to give the same scores as the albums get on iTunes. Compared to a DVD, hardcover book, or most consumer products sold on Amazon, a CD is less expensive, and books would seem to have many of the same creative and emotional attachment qualities as an album. Maybe I'm the guy in the asylum who just knows he's the only sane one, but the only thing I've found true about iTunes' ratings is that 4/5 stars *might* indicate the album is average. Or it might indicate that the group has a large base of fans who wished they turned out a 4-star effort. 

All of this raises interesting questions for those who think social media will somehow improve the job-hunting/recruiting process. Are current employees of a comapny going to give jobseekers objective opinions about what working there is like, or are they going to overlook facts to present views which reinforce their own (positive or negative) biases? Some years ago, I asked my then-boss who we could use for a reference for a particular specialized prospect, and he suggested a client who was on the verge of firing the company. I asked him what he was smoking to make such a suggestion, and he chuckled and said, "never underestimate the unwillingness of a person to admit they made the wrong decision."

Needless to say, it is not clear to me that social media must do anything except amplify the volume of whatever process it is injected into. At the end, the process is still driven by people, and we haven't changed much.