The internet really wanted to help find the Boston bombers.
Because they believed they could do it.
And they could have, but they needed guidance.
You would think such crowdsourcing power would be unprecedented. But such techniques have already been seen in games utilized by the U.S. government.
The State Department tried this in 2012. They created the TAG challenge, a global game designed to find fake bandits around the world. Five "criminals" casually wandered the streets of New York, Washington D.C., London, Stockholm, and Bratislava, waiting for players to find them and snap a photo. Participants were only given a mugshot and a brief description of each bandit, and were told to photograph the suspects roaming around the world.
Unlike previous government-funded challenges, no group successfully completed the mission; only three out of the five suspects were photographed by the winning team. And although the winners discovered two criminals within eight hours of each other, the final two suspects were never discovered within the 24-hour period.
But where MIT's winning team failed, I believe Reddit and 4chan would have succeeded.
After the Boston bombings, they would have been ready for this challenge.
Both Reddit's /r/findthebostonbombers and 4chan’s /pol/ page were bloodhounds, incredibly focused on finding suspects through the Boston Marathon crowd, posting and creating a viral set of images. They played Where's Waldo against a multitude of pictures, analyzed where the bomb could have been planted, and individuals who were carrying suspicious backpacks.
This kind of searching via crowdsourcing was exactly what the TAG challenge was hoping for, but they couldn't achieve it through their game. Why?
The TAG Challenge possibly lacked incentive.
Sure, $5,000 USD is a pretty awesome prize...for one person.
But the winning team set up a network of individuals and split the prize money depending on which network chained up to one of the pictures. And with "thousands of people aware and ready to submit," you're not getting much of a reward for your avid searching. So why bother?
The Boston Marathon inspired a lot more incentive than just chump change. The vast amount of self-worth knowing that your keen observation skills could pinpoint a criminal, and that your analytics would be used against a bad guy...that's incentive in its most just form.
And although this valiant desire to discover a terrorist's tactics chimed in many, it led to rushed finger-pointing and false accusations. The massive dash to find definitive evidence, a pivotal clue, was at the expense of innocent civilians who were caught in the maelstrom of suspicions that followed.
While many articles appeared about the downfall of crowdsoucing within these social networks, few focused on what Reddit and 4chan did well. They both self-assembled, gathered information, and thought critically. Even though they didn't think correctly about their conclusions, they still attempted to analyze the height of the bombers, and determine the types of backpacks they used, which demonstrates a network with strong potential.
And that potential was not only evident during the Boston bombings, it was wildly successful. Everyone who had at least one cell phone picture uploaded their pictures. The sourcing part worked. The problem was that the crowd wasn't a smart crowd.
Not in an "everyone is stupid" way, but in an unguided way.
We've all seen collective information gathering before online, but this is the first time we've seen a broadcasted attempt at analysis.
And analysis isn't easy to do in crowds. Often like we saw with the Boston Bombing, group think easily sets in. Groupthink guides users to believe others in the group, and create a mindset that is incorrect from the truth. If unchecked, groupthink can guide deliberation towards wrong answers pretty quickly. This is exactly why an outside party needs to be involved. Guidance and unbiased information are two vital keys to preventing groupthink.
I'm not saying that the FBI should have been monitoring and chatting it up on Reddit or 4chan, but if there was an alternative platform where people could crowdsource both their information and analyze thoughts with more direction and focus, groupthink wouldn't strongly affect a potentially smart analysis.
The TAG challenge's lack of enthusiasm, incentive and networking would have benefited from the motivation seen from Reddit's /r/findthebostombomber, while Reddit crucially needed guidance from well-trained experts to guide their searches. The combination is a Batman and Joker of sorts; the motivation, incentive and emotion communities like Reddit require control from professionals and experts like the State Department, and the two can dance their way into a new Gotham of wise crowds.