The Community for Technology Leaders

The Winner Takes It All

David Alan Grier
Erin Dian Dumbacher

Pages: pp. 120

Abstract—Has the notion of one person, one vote gone by the wayside?

"Crowdsourcing" is all the rage, but how much weight does a crowd's opinion carry?


It's election season at the Computer Society. Just a few pages from here, you'll find information about the candidates seeking leadership roles in our organization. The campaign will be short and polite. In October, we'll open the ballot boxes and learn what messages the membership has sent us. If past is prologue, the information will be ambiguous and appear to support the status quo. Votes seem to carry less weight even though they're becoming more prominent in our lives.

Social media has been a great promoter of snap votes—the Facebook poll, the Twitter vote. I have at least one colleague who conducts such a straw vote once a day and claims to follow the results.

Although it's wise to consider our neighbors before we take an action, should we ask their opinion before we make any move?


In this decade, the opportunity to connect consumers to products—or potential products—has given life to sophisticated market research models. Some vendors call on new tools like Facebook and Twitter to conduct surveys; others use the traditional sampling and telephone calls during dinner time. No matter the method, sometimes the intentions behind the questions these surveys ask are clear; sometimes we know that the input will simply be shipped to a database and sold on the spam market. (The search for the "unsubscribe" button continues.) Other times, we willingly participate in an uninformed or thoughtless way to just, well, get it over with and get on with our day. But our systems—economic and political—are built on the notion that informed consumers and businesses make better decisions.

As a professional researcher, I have seen the difference between insightful business or policy strategy and the opposite. It's usually the most educated executives who stop and ask for data, who acknowledge that the data is not perfect, and who make important judgments based on both the data and its context. Listening is good. Listening, considering, then deciding is better.


At the moment, I'm trying to ignore my context. I'm sitting in the back row of a conference trying to respond to Erin on my cell phone. My neighbors may think I'm playing a game, but at least they aren't bothering me

At this meeting, talk after talk promoted the benefits of putting technical questions on the Internet for the crowd to answer. The presenters claim that we should learn to trust the crowd, to accept new ideas from outsiders. Technology questions aren't the same as marketing questions, but many of the speakers don't seem to see the difference. The last speaker argued that an idea that was good for the business "ecosystem is good for the technology." The line got strong applause from the audience, but it overlooked the key fact. To answer technical questions, we need to limit our perspective, to exclude claims that aren't relevant to the solution.

We don't make technical decisions based on calls to the crowd, either in the form of a Twitter poll or an election. Technological problems demand the discipline of technological processes. However, we're learning to acknowledge that the context of our technological work—that ecosystem of ideas—is shaped by vote or Tweet or merely a stream of ideas.

About the Authors

David Alan Grier is an IEEE Fellow and author of the forthcoming book The Company We Keep. Contact him at or on Twitter @dagrier.
Erin Dian Dumbacher is a research director and consultant in Washington, DC. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @erin_dian.
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