Tag Archives: Reddit

Reflections on Boston: People Screwed Up, Not Crowdsourcing

23 Apr
Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Ohh, these have been a maddening last few days. The U.S. sort of went to hell last week, and at the center of it all we had the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent panic, finger-pointing, racism, media incompetence, armchair investigation, death threats, and basic reminders that we, as a species, are not that great.

But of course, you’re here because you want to read about crowdsourcing. Throughout this story unfolding, internet denizens gathered on social media outlets, mainly Reddit, to collect information, speculate on as-yet-uncovered details, and attempt to reduce confusion. Which is fine! That’s what Reddit is for; collecting all of the Internet into one place where just the good stuff rises to the surface. The problem arises when certain people decide to take this information and, because they are obviously smarter than the FBI, CIA, and Boston PD combined, attempt to find the perpetrators of the bombings before the authorities do.

Alright, let’s do a rundown of who in this narrative is making me angry (hint: everyone):

  • Redditors. Not as a whole. Reddit is everyone; that is its beauty. I’m mad at the Redditors who had the gall to think they were smarter than the tens of thousands of investigating officials. What leads a person to believe that just because they have a few blurry citizen photographs and some other Internet Detectives on their side, they are better at solving crimes than entities with sophisticated investigation techniques, access to innumerable surveillance sources, a network of collaborators, and the support of the U.S. Government? Glory, maybe. The idea that they can achieve Internet fame for cracking the case. But, that’s The Internet. Some people on it are idiots. I know that, and you know that, but do you know who apparently didn’t know that?
  • Mass Media. The Internet will wildly speculate on anything and everything, but that doesn’t make it fact. What makes a fact is confirmation, proof, and sources. You know, things major news outlets are supposed to get before they report that some random student is probably the bomber. But, of course, as soon as Reddit came up with the name of a dark-skinned male who was possibly a little suspicious, news outlets unfortunately ran with it. With the help of Reddit itself, this poor individual’s family was harassed with countless accusations that their relative was the Boston Bomber. All false, of course. No one knew the identity of the suspects until (surprise!) their names were released by the FBI. Not Reddit, not NBC, not Twitter: the real, honest-to-God government agents who were investigating the case. Turns out they can do their jobs after all!
  • Internet Journalists. Specifically the ones who are liberal with their use of the word “crowdsourcing”. After the events of this story shook out, many were quick to blame crowdsourcing for the colossal amount of incompetence that went down. I’ve got a news flash for all of them: what happened here wasn’t an example of “crowdsourcing” by any definition of the word. What many forget is that aside from the presence of a crowd, the equally important component of crowdsourcing is the controlling entity, the person or people directing the crowd. It’s what separates this story from the time that crowdsourcing actually did solve a murder mystery. What we have here is crowdsourcing with a complete lack of compartmentalization; without a leader steering them towards a common goal, the crowd governs themselves. I should hope I don’t have to tell you how well that sort of thing typically works out.
  • Media Consumers. Yeah, I’m in this boat and so are all of you. We’re the reason for the 24-hour news cycle, we’re the reason that fact-checking is passé and editorialized headlines are the norm. We’re the reason the media will jump on the opportunity to place the blame on any brown kid they can find. And we’re the reason that Reddit posts saying “hey guys, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and let the authorities do their jobs” got downvoted straight to hell. We demand answers more than we demand correct answers, and our constant yearning for entertainment has turned the news into what at times feels like a constant stream of barely-relevant information. I know this is well-trodden ground at this point, and that I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said fifty times before by people much smarter than me. I don’t care. I’m angry anyway.

I think if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that the Internet has made many people forget their places. The fact that information can travel so quickly from brain to fingers to keyboard to THE WHOLE WORLD and onto a new brain makes people think that they can solve mysteries better than the pros. These are people who dedicate their lives to these things, and chances are they’re better at it than the random Internet denizen. Let them do their jobs.

People on Reddit are supposed to gather and share information; they don’t investigate crimes, finger suspects, or make Facebook raids. The media reports what is happening in the world, once they’re absolutely sure that it is indeed happening. If they see something worth reporting on Reddit, they are perfectly within their rights to do so, but they are obligated to make sure it’s true first. And the viewers of the news are supposed to watch it, not demand it. Demand for news leads to fabrication of news.

Everyone, please take a breather, recoup, and kindly go about your business.


Case Study: What We Learned From Mountain Dew

16 Aug

By now, you may have heard of the fiasco that was Mountain Dew’s “Dub The Dew” contest, where they crowdsourced the name for their new Granny-Smith-apple-flavored Dew. If you’re a dedicated reader, you already see where I’m going with this. I’ll just cut to the chase, since this picture pretty much sums it up:

Disaster area. 4chan’s /b/ board got ahold of it, and in their typical fashion, overwhelmed the contest with their sheer numbers and pushed all the other entries out of the top 10 positions, replacing them with flavors like “Gushing Granny”, “Diabeetus”, and “Hitler did nothing wrong”. As of my writing this, the contest site is blank, but the damage is done.

Fortunately, we can make a case study out of this and actually learn something. Here are a few tips for dealing with your crowd if you happen to be a big company holding a contest on the Internet:

  • Seriously. Know your audience. I can’t be the first person to tell Mountain Dew that their product is overwhelmingly consumed people who use the Internet a LOT. The law of averages hurts Dew in this case, since it would stand to reason that at least one of these Internet users would tell 4chan about the contest, and this is not the sort of low-hanging fruit 4chan leaves alone. Especially because you didn’t…
  • Validate your contributions. If this is a real contest, treat it like one. Make people sign up to enter or vote, even if it’s just Facebook validation. It’s annoying, and you’ll lose some voters, but you won’t have as many cases of the sort of chaos that pure anonymity can breed. Look at Lay’s Facebook contest to name a new potato chip flavor; I don’t see any “Fapulous Apple” there. A little accountability goes a long way, especially when it means that you can block offending accounts or IP addresses. Speaking of technological failures…
  • Security is still super important. See that bit of anti-Israel vitriol at the top of the screenshot? Surprisingly, Mountain Dew didn’t put that there themselves. That was the result of a hacker with the smallest amount of talent and five spare minutes. See, the site lacked something called “input validation”, meaning that programming code entered in the contest entry box would actually appear on the website. It’s a little complicated, and explained better in this Reddit thread, but the gist of it is that this was Web Security 101, completely and easily avoidable, and Mountain Dew dropped the ball. I’m sure this didn’t help vote hacking, either.

So it looks like Mountain Dew threw together this contest with minimal research or development, and now they’re receiving results indicative of their lack of effort. The sad thing is, this is the sort of event that makes entire industries shy away from crowdsourcing as a method. But it’s just that: a way to do things, a tool. If you hold a hammer by the wrong end, it’s not gonna get that nail down, and you’re gonna look like a freakin’ idiot in the process.

Learn, and try again.

SF Weekly’s Dan Mitchell Gives Props to the Crowd

9 Mar

SOPA, Limbaugh, Komen: This Is What Happens When the Mob is Right - Dan Mitchell, SF Weekly

In the wake of recent news events, it looks like people are starting to wise up to the collective power of the crowd when leveraged for good. Dan Mitchell sums it up quite well in an article I’m sure I will refer to many, many times in the upcoming years, whenever someone asks me, “So why is crowdsourcing so important anyway?”

Finding Favors: Insightful Statements from Reddit’s Kleinbl00

6 Feb
Reddit user kleinbl00 created, organized, and moderated a subsection of the site dedicated to “favors”—small bits of expertise and/or material traded amongst the community for altruistic reasons. He offers his insights on crowdsourcing, Reddit, and some of the lessons he has learned.
  • Reddit’s strength is that it very efficiently organizes discussion hierarchically. It is often crushed under its own weight, but its ability to interlink and reinforce any discussion based on popular ranking tends to refine any discussion to the most popular points.
  • This is also its weakness, but if you want something to happen quickly, that’s what it does.
  • In the fracas over the “mystery missile” last year, I put forth the notion that it could have been a launch from San Nicolas Island—a notion I now consider discredited, by the way. It didn’t take a couple of hours before people stationed on San Nicolas Island—a closed military facility—added their opinion and fact-checking. This is not something that happens in the New York Times comments—and if it did, you’d never know.
  • Adrian Chen documented pretty succinctly the horrors inflicted on a girl who was simply trying to raise money on Reddit for cancer research. The Internet loves giving to a good cause. But if they have their trust betrayed, they unleash a torrent of unholy fury at the nameless, faceless individual on the other end of the computer who dared to make them feel human.
  • I think that people love being altruistic, but they hate having to judge who is worthy of their altruism.
  • One problem with crowdsourcing is that generally, there isn’t anyone willing to vouch for whether or not someone is trustworthy. But that doesn’t stop the “crowd” from expecting someone to do that job, and if no one does, the crowd will choose someone to be worthy of their wrath… and they’re seldom careful about it.
  • I don’t know that anyone is an expert on crowdsourcing. I think it’s new and I think everyone is sort of puzzling out what they can.
  • One good thing about crowdsourcing: you will be exposed to people you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, who will help you for motives you wouldn’t have expected, and who will provide assistance beyond what you would have imagined.
  • Someone was having a hard time paying their heating bill. /r/favors chipped in something like $500 and helped the guy keep from freezing, but this type of thing is technically in violation of our rules. We had to ask the community if they wanted more of this, because we knew if we allowed it regularly, it would be all we’d see. The community largely agreed not to allow it.
  • /r/assistance originally set itself up for just this sort of thing, but then found themselves inundated with requests from wishuponahero.org. It caused a great deal of turmoil and outrage, with people accusing the moderator there—who’s a genuinely nice and altruistic person—of favoritism for his friends.
  • By surrendering its judgement to an external force, the crowd also raises its personal stakes for failure. Those approaching the crowdsourcing model need to be aware that people will work for what they believe in, but if they decide that their beliefs have been messed with, they’re much less forgiving than if they weren’t part of a crowd.
  • In short, someone needs to be in charge, and they need to be aware that right or wrong, they will be held accountable by everyone working “for” them.
  • Wikipedia is a spectacular resource for base-level information; crowdsourcing that information is useful. But there’s a hell of a lot more information about Harry Potter than there is about, say, Shakespeare. And controversial topics, such as abortion, are mostly noteworthy for their protracted edit wars.
  • Seti@home and folding@home are excellent examples of how well crowdsourcing works for projects in which expertise is not required. Those doing the work don’t need to know a thing about what they’re doing—they just need a willingness to help.
  • Jane McGonigal has an example in her book “Reality is Broken” whereby one of the British papers put up a giant info dump from Parliament for people to weed through in search of auditing irregularities. They found heaps.
  • People on /r/favors generally object to favors the asker could do themselves if they spent 10 minutes with Google. They have no objections to things they can do in ten minutes in Quark or AfterFX, whereas it would take the asker six months to learn all the stuff they know.
  • At the same time, people also aren’t particularly fond of posts akin to, “I recognize that this is something that I can get done for a fee, but I want people to do it as a ‘favor’ because I’m poor/cheap/wish to devalue the professional marketplace.”
  • There is no industry or entity that would be better off replaced by crowdsourcing. None. Zero. Not a one. Crowdsourcing is, in many ways, an attempt to replace expertise, and it never works. Any crowdsourced project needs someone to organize it and separate the wheat from the chaff, which means that any successful crowdsourced entity quickly becomes hierarchical.
  • I get truly heartbreaking e-mails sometimes. People have told me that a rant against Diet Coke had them fundamentally changing their diet and now they have more energy than they’ve had in years.
  • Like fireflies around a lantern, the more of us there are the more of us we attract. Assuming nobody screws up anything major, Reddit is, for all intents and purposes, where the Western Internet gets its shit together.
If you already have an active Reddit account, or you’d simply like to help out your fellow internet user, head over to /r/favors to see who could use your exact type of service.

By Seth W

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