There can be no doubt that the power of the crowd is awe-inspiring. There are many examples of how institutions use crowdsourcing to increase the opportunity for adding value with respect to certain issues: bringing together subject matter experts, unlocking hidden worker knowledge (internal perspective in companies) or crowdfunding as an example. When it comes to the subject of engagement, the idea has certainly come up -- for government of course -- how can we create more engagement opportunities to get the public, the crowd, involved in helping government learn, gather feedback, gain insights, etc. Hey, there's an example of this thinking in action at NYU's Gov Lab (http://www.thegovlab.org/) Experiment on April 18th and 19th.
I certainly love the idea and concept of how powerful the power of the crowd truly can be and am quite energized by it. What we forget or try to dismiss sometimes though is the threat of the crowd or the risk. In the for-profit sector, sometimes what might be a small conversation concerning engaging customers moves to something large and public skirmish.
If we look at recent events, we've had an example of how dangerous the crowd can be in spite of how helpful they seek to be -- aside from the "We The People's" about having the federal government building a Death Star. With the events of the Boston Marathon bombing, we had a test case of exactly how this awesome power can also generate dangerous circumstances.
On April 16th 2013, Wired.com reported intentions that had surfaced that the data from the Boston Bombing will be crowdsourced given the expanse of the data generated and collected during the events. Whether it was cellphone photos, vine recordings, and instagram feeds, investigators in Boston asked individuals, led by the FBI, to provide all data they had captured to try and build a large picture of what actually happened during the events of the bombings. As Wired.com commented, within a few minutes of the bombings, all social media sources flared up to generate a vast and unwieldly trove of information. One of the outlets that also became self-aware -- to lend the language from Terminator -- was Reddit (A user generated web 2.0 news website with a lefty, libertarian and geek slant. Tends to be slightly more upmarket than its larger competitor). Reddit user Oops777 created the /r/BostonBombings subreddit that became ground zero for geeks, homegrown image analysts, those sharing content and other entrepreneur sluthes to bring together all the data and information for finding the Boston Bombers. What began as an inspiring mobilization of individuals who really had the tools necessary -- and information potentially -- to help the authorities solve the question of who perpetrated the bombings, quickly devolved into a publicity and community fiasco pointing the finger at the wrong individuals and quickly creating vast public disonance against the poor, singled-out individual. USA today noted on the merits of using such a situation to examine the role for citizen law enforcement being a good idea.
The details: a poor student Sunil Tripathi (who had been missing since March 2013) was pointed out as the culprit from the media that was reviewed and sourced by the subreddit. Sunil Tripathi, a missing student from Brown University, was later confirmed to be found dead in late April.
Last Thursday, shortly after the F.B.I. released grainy surveillance photographs of the two men they believed were the Boston bombers, some Internet users began to speculate that Mr. Tripathi might be one of them. They began posting messages suggesting as much on the Facebook page the family used to raise awareness about their search for Mr. Tripathi. As the policed pursued the two suspects on a fiery chase through the Boston area, the rumor spread, leading news vans to stake out the Tripathis’s family home in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and reporters to make dozens of calls to the Tripathi family’s cellphones.
“It was absolutely horrible,” said Ms. Tripathi, who said her family knew immediately that neither of the men in the photographs was her son — a man who they said literally would not hurt a fly, choosing instead to set insects free outside.
By last Friday morning, investigators had released the suspects’ names — Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — absolving Mr. Tripathi of any connection to the case. Apologies began to pour in to the Tripathi family — including one from the online forum Reddit, where users had doggedly pursued the rumor — who began a new social media campaign they hoped would persuade Sunil to come home.
Investigators were perceivably forced to release the names due in large part to the false claims made and the blowback that the Tripathi family was receiving inappropriately. Example of the sleuth-work:
In retrospect, Reddit apologized for allowing the activity to take place (their own community manager weighed in) and for any harm that was generated by the activities of Reddit members. As far as Oops777, he did what's called an AMA on Reddit -- AskMeAnything -- after the events themselves. As the HuffPost mentions, quoted from the AMA:
"What is most remarkable about the AMA is how readily Oops777 admits that he regrets his decision to create the subreddit. He says that he originally created the page "to consolidate the already existing posts floating around /r/news and /r/boston," obviously not realizing what a stir the subreddit would cause. When asked if it was worth it, he responded: "Not even slightly."
I understand very well this post was supposed to be about the amazing power of crowdsourcing. I recognize the power and am hopeful of the vast value that can be generated by the crowd. What I'm doing here which I've never done -- is taking a position against it and the potential threat. I'm definitely in the camp of put it out there and see how the crowd handles it and creates value. I couldn't help but document this story because for those of us who want to push the value of the crowd forward, we'll always have detractors come back to us with the story of how Reddit and the Bombing fiasco are reasons not to. Here's what I propose; when we talk of the value of the crowd, strict boundaries, rules and constraints have to be applied even though the web traditionally exists in a pure laissez-faire, autonomous manner. As institutions and potential beneficiaries of the value of crowd-work, we have to put some rules in place not to constrict people in a box of thinking but to ensure we limit risk to the public good -- especially on matters that relate to the public good, like crime fighting and terrorism.
We need to look carefully at this situation and determine whether there is a way to replay the crowd-crime-sleuthing contrary to Oops777's feelings about it being a terrible idea from the get go. That's the easy way out -- it's our job to figure out how to make this work. The world is moving this way -- and we don't have much of a choice, so let's ensure we make the most of it and maintain the public good, especially for the potential of lawmaking and policymaking with the crowd.