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How Boston Showed the Promises—and Perils—of Crowdsourcing

Scott Lucas | April 22, 2013 | Story Politics

Online aggregation can tap into the wisdom of the crowd or lead to a digital lynch mob—and the double-edged nature of the technology was on full display last week in responses to the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon. Charitable contributions poured in from around the world on sites like Give Forward, but overzealous scalp hunters also formed online, targeting innocent bystanders. As our article on the new ethics of crowdfunding, "Generation Ask," points out, crowdsourcing is here to stay. The question is how to nuture the good that comes with it, while tamping down the bad.

A simple tally reveals the extent of the support that crowdsourcing sites have allowed victims to tap into. As of Friday, the families of ten different victims had raised $547,063 on, a crowdfunding site that directs charitable donations to unexpected medical bills. On GoFundMe, donors had raised $792,928 earmarked for Boston victims. The DiMartino family set a goal of $500 to help defray the cost of leg surgery and recovery for Gina DiMartino. By the end of the week they had raised $8,604 on indiegogo from 137 funders—17 times more than their benchmark. Although it is not clear whether these figures represent charitable giving that would have not occured using traditional appeals or if they represent money that would have not otherwise been given, it is clear thanks to crowd-sourcing, it is easier than ever to donate to important causes.

But the response to the attacks also highlights a troubling trend as well. During the police manhunt last week, Twitter went buzzing with rumors—some true but many false—that obscured rather than clarified the breaking news. Worse, over on Reddit, a self-appointed committee of public safety, a group called "Find Boston Bombers" combed the photographs of the crowd for evidence of the suspects, an over-reach for which it today apologized. They didn't find the brothers, but instead put a public searchlight on innocent bystanders. Today in an editorial, The Boston Herald called those efforts "social media at its worst: arrogant, reckless and even racist." One of the moderators of the sub-reddit told the LA Times, "We learned how quickly witch-hunts can start."

How do we weigh the pros and cons of the crowd? Maybe it's too early to speculate, but at least one takeaway seems clear. Its better to harness the power of the crowd to help other people, than to hunt down wrong-doers. Even in the age of disruption, some things are better left to professionals. Pitching in $20 to help buy a bombing victim's prosthesis? Go for it. Pretending to be Jack Bauer? Maybe not.

Better to channel the crowd's energies on supporting a worthy cause than letting loose the vigilantes.

So, two cheers for crowdsourcing. Just try not to get carried away.

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