Crowd Science and Quora

The best magazine in the world, consistently, is The New Yorker. As I do on all flights, I take a stack of old ones and try to see if anything catches my eye. The first article I read last week was “Crush Point,” by John Seabrook (Feb 7, 2011). Seabrook asks in the subtitle, “When large crowds assemble, is there a way to keep them safe?” (Link to download article PDF below.)

As an avid user and fan of Quora — a crowd-based Q&A site — I was excited to see this article unfold.

Seabrook talks about the evolution of crowd management science and uses a horrifyingly pulp incident to drive his point home — the Black Friday scene at a Walmart where a mob crowd of shoppers broke down the door and stampeded over a very large employee, crushing him to death. Crowds are going to be a larger and larger part of everyday human life, as countries industrialize and urbanize in the process. Seabrook chronicles how we, as humans, are both sometimes scared of crowds, learn to avoid them, but also have evolved in a way that we can intuitively navigate through some without ever rubbing shoulders.

All of the talk around “crowd disasters” reminded me of all the hype and drama around the emergence of Quora recently. Some users (myself included) are rabid fans of the new medium. Others, especially some vocal digital media experts and some mainstream tech journalists, are unsure about Quora. They might think, on some level, that the weight of the crowd could create another disaster, such as Yahoo! Answers 😉

If you are a user of Quora, I would encourage you to download, print, and read this short (7pgs) article. Finally, I will share one quote from Seabrook that I found particularly fascinating:

“In the literature on crowd disasters, there is a striking incongruity between the way these events are depicted in the press and how they actually occur. In popular accounts, they are almost invariably described as “panics.” The crowd is portrayed as a single, unified entity, which acts according to “mob psychology” — a set of primitive instincts (fear, followed by flight) that favor self-preservation over the welfare of others, and cause “stampedes” and “tramplings.” But most crowd disasters are caused by “crazes” — people are usually moving toward something they want, rather than away from something they fear…”

Download this file