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Crowdsourcing Reaches Its Limits

Crowdsourcing has picked up a lot of good press over the last few years. Entrepreneurs can now raise cash for projects through Kickstarter. Philanthropists and volunteers can collect funds on platforms like IndieGoGo. Researchers and developers can build cheap, large-scale workforces through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They follow the work of organizations like SETI which for years have been making use of thousands of idle computers to sort through massive amounts of data. For a long time, it’s seemed as though the power of the crowd could do lots of good and never any wrong. The reaction to the Boston bombing, though, has shown what can happen when an online crowd becomes a connected mob — and raises important questions about how even freelancers and small entrepreneurs should be using networks to build their businesses.

What Went Wrong?

Following the bombing Reddit’s users took upon themselves the task of sorting through the hours of video footage showing the crowd at the Boston marathon. Thousands of eyeballs, they believed, would be able to help the police look for suspicious behavior among the crowds in the stands. Having isolated individuals who appeared to be up to no good, the community’s tech-savvy members could then get to work on identifying them. They would also be able to scour the local news, Facebook pages and forums for information about people who could have been involved.

Users focused on Sunil Trapathi, a missing Brown University student with no involvement in the bombing. His family was harassed and forced to take down the Facebook page that asked for help finding him. His sister received 72 phone calls on her mobile phone between 3am and 4.30am. (Trapathi’s body may now have been recovered from the Providence River.)

Reddit has since apologized to the Trapathi family both publicly and in private. The community also noted that its policy of not posting personal information on the site was created precisely to avoid this kind of personal targeting:

This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong.

When Crowdsourcing is Bad for Freelancers

Reddit’s blunder could be an extreme case. After the bombing, the site’s traffic peaked at 272,000 users as people flocked to the platform to discuss what had happened and try to help locate the bombers. Few crowdsourcing efforts can build on either that level of motivation or on crowds of that size, but sometimes it doesn’t take much for an online crowd to turn into a mob.

When photographer Dana Dawes posted a cheap offer on Groupon in 2010, she might have expected some criticism from other photographers concerned about her low prices. She got that, but she also picked up a huge reaction from people who spotted that many of the images she had placed on her website to attract buyers had been copied from the websites of other photographers. The discussion, deleted by Groupon but kept by Petapixel, started with questions about how Dawes would cope with the demand but soon descended into increasingly angry comments, threats of legal actions and accusations of fraud. Dawes’s website now contains nothing but AdSense supported articles.

Dawes’ victims were spotted by other photographers suspicious of the difference between her low prices and the quality of her images. When the freelancer herself spots the fraud, there’s a whole new danger, especially when that freelancer has a large following.

Photographer Grace Chon, for example, has built a name for herself as a pet photographer in Los Angeles. Her Facebook page has more than 3,000 likes and her posts frequently attract triple-figure likes and plenty of comments. Her photos also attract copycats who imitate her website, her copy and her images. Rather than set her followers onto those imitators, Chon tends to point out that she’s spotted them and contacted her lawyers, but she doesn’t mention their name. That’s a smart move considering the most common reactions to her post. The most frequent comment is “Let’s get her.”

The commenters might not have been serious (not least about putting flaming dog poop on the copycat’s porch, as one follower suggested) but they do show that creative freelancers with loyal followings need to be careful about what they say to their fans.

Crowdsourcing Can Work for Freelancers

It’s not all bad news though. LinkedIn’s growth to 200 million users (and the most lucrative of the social media platforms) has everything to do with its ability to turn a small number of connections into a large network capable of delivering job offers, clients and opportunities. Although posting a request for a job on a social media site rarely brings interviews, targeted approaches that ask for introductions to friends of friends can solve the problem of needing to know the right people to complement the skills you already know.

Dribbble, a site that allows graphic designers to gain feedback from their peers on their work in progress has also proved itself to be a good place to crowdsource professional advice and recommendations. The reactions, views and votes act as crowdsourced recommendations for potential new clients looking for freelancers to help them with new projects. The site has no shortage of talented designers whose success on the platform has allowed them to pick and choose their next prestigious projects.

It’s too easy to say that Reddit’s witch hunt has shown that crowdsourcing is dangerous, wrong and will always have negative consequences. Rather, it’s shown that crowds, even those online, can have the potential to turn into a mob when faced with wrongdoing that they believe they have the power to fix. But just as a mob can hunt down an individual, even an innocent one, so a crowd can also bring help to people who need it. Freelancers should be ready to use crowds to find clients or fund their projects. Kickstarting works; hunting criminals, even copyright thieves, not so much.

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