On Culture

Proles vs. Pros: An Experiment In Curating

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 6, 2008

A bunch of self-described know-nothings, aficionados and anonymous experts curated a new photography exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The museum's goal was not to debate the merits of Walker Evans vs. Edward Weston or haggle over such details as lighting and wall placement. It was to decide if a horde of disconnected individuals could make reasonable judgments on art.

"Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition" was inspired by the 2005 book "The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. In it he argues that crowds in all their lowbrow, rumpled unruliness are wiser than an elite few. One prays for this theory to be true during election years, jury trials and when perusing a Zagat guide in search of a restaurant suggestion.

Surowiecki offers a multitude of examples that demonstrate how crowds have made eerily accurate predictions. He points to the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, for instance. The stock market immediately began to punish one of the four main shuttle contractors more harshly than the others. Six months later, it turned out that company was responsible for the disastrously defective O-rings. A group, Surowiecki says, is better at guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar than any one individual. The reason it's so hard to beat the point spread in a sports bet is because you're playing against the hordes and the hordes know all.

There are certain rules for optimum crowd success. The smartest crowds are diverse. And ideally, individuals in the group should evaluate the question or dilemma independently. He writes: "Independence doesn't imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you're independent, you won't make the group any dumber." In other words, avoid e-mail discussion groups. Avoid blogs. Avoid prolonged conversations with that agitated neighbor who listens to way too much talk radio.

The crowd guidelines for "Click!," which runs through Aug. 10, were simple. Individuals submitted images that reflected the "changing face of Brooklyn," a borough obsessed with its ongoing gentrification. The 389 photos were posted online and evaluated by 3,344 self-selected people who identified their own level of expertise, from none to expert. They didn't have access to information about the artists and they couldn't read one another's comments. There was also a fancy algorithm to make the viewing random and fair and to prevent people from linking to their own photos from their personal blogs.

The technological contortions were meant to guard against an "information cascade," a situation in which people stop making decisions based on what they know and instead decide on what they assume other people know. The most basic example of the negative effects of an "information cascade" is when you're standing on a street corner reading the menu for two different restaurants. Restaurant A has the more enticing options but not many diners. Restaurant B has a mediocre menu but is packed. You choose Restaurant B, because you figure all those people can't be wrong. An information cascade is responsible for your bad meal.

Some photographers attempted to circumvent the system by posting their images elsewhere, but no one managed to launch a viral attack. The process was tame and so are most of the pictures. None of the photographs in "Click!" induces the kind of psychological vertigo that a Diane Arbus image might. There does not appear to be a burgeoning James Van Der Zee in the bunch. The images are akin to striking postcards. It doesn't take much expertise to make sense of the work.

The top 10 images selected by the crowd had seven photographs in common with the top 10 picked by a subgroup of self-proclaimed experts, although they weren't ranked in the same order. The crowd and the experts also agreed on the best image: a 1979 image of an elderly woman seated in a diner with the city street reflected in the window as she looks out.

One wonders whether the crowd and the experts would have agreed if they'd been asked to rank abstract paintings or sculpture. How would the crowd have reacted to a Cindy Sherman photo thrown into the mix? (You just know it would have involved some sort of self-portrait, an allusion to isolation and bugs.)

This exhibit may have been particularly suited to crowd-based curating because photography is a medium that people experience every day, whether it is a particularly artful photo in the newspaper or an artsy black-and-white snapshot of their newborn they're e-mailing to relatives. There's a sense of ownership and accessibility with photography that doesn't exist with sculpture or painting. That connection is one of its pleasures; it doesn't seem so precious or elitist.

We need to believe in the wisdom of crowds if only because the alternative -- the stupidity of the masses -- is so distressing. So it's nice to know that the crowd and the experts mostly agreed on the answer to this curatorial question. There's just no way of knowing whether it was the right one.


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