Within hours of the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, the FBI was appealing to the public to provide them with photos and video of the time period before, during and after the attack. Combined with various surveillance footage from surrounding businesses, the FBI hoped to pinpoint the suspects. While the FBI has asked for the public’s help before, the amount of information provided by the public wielding smart phones and digital cameras was unprecedented. What was also unprecedented was a call for the same data from an unlikely source: Reddit.
A day or two after the attack, Reddit users sent out a similar appeal for video and still footage of the Marathon Attack. However, unlike the FBI, Reddit then invited users to scour the footage themselves for leads. What began as a small project by relatively few Reddit users soon evolved into a massive crowd sourcing effort by people all around the world. Never before had crowd sourcing been used in such a way.
Crowd sourcing has been employed by historians more and more over the past ten years. As budgets have shrunk and the humanities have become valued less and less in the workplace, historians have posted large amounts of raw historical material online. A great example of such a site can be found here.Set up by the University of Iowa, DIY History posts manuscripts, diaries and other materials online. Users are then asked to transcribe the materials digitally and even in some cases, correct the transcriptions others have completed. The end result is a running, almost living analysis of a particular document.
Until now, crowd sourcing has been considered a novelty. Researchers find various ways to keep users on their sites interested in the process of working through data, such as assigning ranks to truly prolific users. Crowd sourcing has also changed the field of historical research by opening up the raw data to the public. More often that not, the public is exposed only to the finished product and not the nitty-gritty work that goes into the actual research. By opening up the materials to the public, a researcher could quite possibly come into contact with a person who has specialized knowledge of a subject yet is not a member of academia.
But can crowd sourcing solve crimes? The jury is still out on it’s effectiveness upon historical research. So far no major studies have been published that utilized crowd sourcing and the academic community is still quite skeptical of the general public’s capacity to help with research. If seeking out a suspected terrorist in a crowd could be considered a facet of research, the limitations and strengths must apply here as well and even more so.
An excellent article by Charles Arthur of the Guardian points out the severe limitations of crowd sourcing police investigations. Unlike transcribing diaries or manuscripts, the negative effects of crowd sourcing an investigation are profound. A short time after the Reddit campaign began, still images of innocent bystanders were splashed all over the internet as potential suspects based on little more than skin color, the type of clothing they were wearing or how they carried themselves. While professional investigators may use such criteria in their investigations, they are trained how to do so. Instead, two days after the bombing The New York Post ran a crowd sourced cover photo of two Middle Eastern looking men who were being “sought by police.” The efforts of these two men to clear their names ultimately led to false reports of an arrest being made on Wednesday, April 17. It was the penultimate failure for crowd sourcing the Boston Marathon investigation
Such drawbacks must also be taken into account by historians. Lack of proper training by laypeople and the inclusion of those with particular political or ideological axes to grind could evolve from a major headache to a serious incident for historians. No one wants the culmination of a semester’s or a lifetime’s work compromised by a few keystrokes from the wrong person. As of now no interesting information derived from Reddit’s campaign has proved useful to authorities.
However, one must wonder what would have happened if Reddit did locate the suspects before the FBI did. If it did, it would have marked an epochal moment in internet history. Also, once the FBI released pictures of the suspects (a form of crowd sourcing in itself), did Reddit users locate them and provide information to the FBI? Perhaps months from now after the dust has settled we will have a clearer picture of the role crowd sourcing played in the investigation. As smartphone and other digital technology continues to proliferate,we will most likely see more efforts like this in the future. The Boston Marathon Attack was the first terrorist attack in the United States to take place at a time when virtually everyone has a camera on their person. The question then, is not IF crowd sourcing solves a major crime, but WHEN. So it goes for historical research as the day will come when a lowly crowd sourcer could uncover the a major historical breakthrough.