September 2017

Line in the Sand: Crowdsourcing

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Barry Kaufman

Did you know that the whole thing about having to wear special glasses during an eclipse is a myth? Yeah. You don’t need glasses, just go ahead and stare right at the thing. After all, isn’t the whole point of an eclipse that it gets dark? Whoever hurt their eyes looking at the dark?

And did you know that the Lowcountry has been infested with a genus of spider known as “The Brazilian Death?” It looks a lot like a common wolf spider, but trust me, it’s a classic cavatica horribilus. Apparently, the only time it can be photographed is when it’s worn out and sluggish from having already laid its eggs in your face.
Oh! And did you know that the reason the local Atlanta Bread Company closed was that they found a live deer in the walk-in cooler going to town on some guacamole?

You’d know all of this if you subscribed to the same Facebook ask & answer group I do, since these are all completely fabricated responses I have submitted to otherwise innocuous questions. Why did I do it?

Partially because I’m easily bored and thrive on negative attention. But in a more specific sense, it’s because this week Courtney and I are talking about crowdsourcing. (The usual caveat applies here: I’m talking about crowdsourcing. Courtney may have completely changed her mind again and written her column on animal husbandry for all I know).

The problem with crowdsourcing is pretty much the same problem with communism. On paper, it works great. But it all falls apart once you factor that people are kind of the worst.

You see, in theory, crowdsourcing should be an amazing way to harness the brainpower of the masses to arrive at the ultimate solution. Everyone might know a little bit about something, or one person might be the expert. Either way, if you ask enough people a question, in theory you’ll arrive at something approximating the correct answer.

It’s how SETI uses spare CPU power from volunteer computers to parse through mountains of radio data from outer space. Or how hackers form a botnet from infected “smart” devices. It’s just using the combined intelligence of countless sources to create a kind of hyperintelligence.

And it works, because none of those things I just mentioned are people. And if people are the worst, people on the Internet are what happens when “worst” goes on a meth bender.

Crowdsourcing ideas from the Internet is how we wound up with Lay’s cappuccino flavored potato chips. It’s how the New York Mets’ official eighth inning song wound up being Ric Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It’s how Obama’s first crowdsourced press conference wound up being almost entirely about legalizing marijuana.

And, oh yeah, it’s how two totally innocent men wound up on the cover of the New York Post as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Right after the bombing, a bunch of amateur crowdsourcing sleuths on Reddit (generally my favorite place to tell myself “I’m just clicking one more link” for about five hours a day) decided to start analyzing photos and security camera footage of the crowd from just before the bombs went off. Using the time-tested detective technique of “thinking this guy looks a little shady,” these laptop Sherlocks wound up fingering several suspects including 17-year-old Salah Barhoun.

Of course, Salah Barhoun did not actually bomb the Boston Marathon. This did not stop the Post from running a photo of him and his friend right up front, with the headline “Bag Men.” They were nice enough to add the caveat: “There is no direct evidence linking them to the crime,” because actually putting in writing, “according to some guys on Reddit” would have damaged the sterling journalistic reputation of the New York Post. Either way, everyone was too busy calling Barhoun with death threats to read that part.

And if you’re thinking, “Well one guy got wrongly accused but was exonerated. No harm no foul,” you should probably know I only made up your ridiculous straw man statement for the purposes of laying the smack down on it. First, it wasn’t just one guy. The Internet accused a bunch of random people who had the bad fortune of being in photos taken before the bombing. They went by names like White Hat Black Jacket Guy, Blue Duffel Bag Guy and Green Hat Guy. And almost all of them were eventually identified and met similar threats.

But more important, the FBI released the famous photos of the Tsarnaev brothers specifically because so many innocent people were being blamed. The Tsarnaev brothers, seeing their faces on TV and realizing it was all over, fled. The ensuing manhunt turned Boston into a war zone.

And it all happened because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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Courtney Hampson
Sometimes when I am at a restaurant, I pass on ordering until I hear what everyone else is getting. I mean, I don’t want to order the burger and fries if everyone else is getting a salad. That my friends, is crowdsourcing.
When I am shopping online, before I make a purchase, I read other purchasers’ reviews. I mean, if the skinny jeans run small, I know I need to order a size up to prevent looking like a woman bound in a sausage casing. Also crowdsourcing.

The idea of crowdsourcing is not new. Some quick research will reveal that the concept behind crowdsourcing—the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people—has been happening for more than a century. Think the war efforts of World War II, the civil rights movement, and other grassroots endeavors. In the digital age, however, crowdsourcing became a way to raise funds (millions in the case of some start-ups) via an online community versus personal networks. Suddenly, we could connect with thousands of people with the click of a button. In the social media age, we are all crowdsourcing to some degree every day.

In fact, each time we pull up our social media sites, we have become the target audience for someone seeking an opinion and/or support for their opinion. Today, the definition of crowdsourcing could be boiled down to: If you don’t like the answer you’re getting, look for another one. If you ask enough opinions, you’ll eventually find one you like. That opinion could be from someone you don’t know, have never met, and knows nothing about you. Is that any way to go through life?

Let’s explore, shall we?

Go ahead and tap the Facebook icon on your phone. What is the first post that appears?

Gratefully, I see a post from Chris S, that reads: “Big thanks to NC Philanthropy Conference for bringing me in to deliver my “Empathy for Donor Engagement” keynote. Thank you all for doing your part to give voice to the voiceless and sharing in today’s discussion.”

This is a notable example of using social media and crowdsourcing for good. In fact, if you know Chris, and are familiar with his 747 Club, it is a perfect study in crowdsourcing. What started with a pot of sauce has become a movement that has touched more than 200,000 people. Go ahead, check out 747club.org.

But, like with any great power, some use it for “evil.” For example: “Thinking about getting new boobs. Thoughts?” This person is an attention-seeker.

And my personal favorite, “Susie Q is now live on Facebook,” which is tantamount to, “Please, someone, look at me.”

Personally, I have become increasingly aware of what I do—and don’t—post on social media because so much of that platform suddenly seems like a cry for help and a yelp for attention.

On the flip side, when Lowcountry Lab Rescue needs a foster home for a dog, I scroll furiously through the comments, always delighted to see that dog has a home before I even have time to raise my hand. And, when a Bluffton family loses their home to a fire, just nine months after they lost their wife/mother to cancer, and a GoFundMe page is started to help, I sigh with pride for our town.

Ironically as Barry and I were debating what to debate (those e-mail exchanges alone should at some point be printed in their totality), I was pushing for “is less more” as the topic, and I am about to apply that very sentiment to social media and crowdsourcing.

Yes, less is more. Make this world less about you. Make your confidence more. Make your online imprint less. Make your worldly contribution more.

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