7 degrees of failure: Is the power of the crowd overrated?

May 30th, 2012 by

microtask_7_degrees.jpgAs anyone who has ever wandered the aisles of an airport bookstore knows, the world today is a flat and shrinking global village (with a long tail), where everyone is friends with Kevin Bacon. Those of us who spend our time immersed in the hyper-connected world that crowdsourcing inhabits find this all very plausible. But how true is it, really? Is the world a village where anonymity (or avoiding Kevin Bacon and Joseph Kony) is now impossible?

Last month’s TAG Challenge, suggests we are not there, just yet. The TAG Challenge was a real-life crowdsourced gaming competition in which five “jewel thieves” hid in plain sight in cities around the world. To win, teams had to locate and snap pictures of the suspects by any means they could think of. Using the crowd (through forums, social media and such) was vital.

TAG, you’re it
While three of the thieves were found by teams, two were not. Where were these two, you ask? In Pyongyang’s first supermarket? In the slums of Nairobi or sewers of Delhi? Actually, no. They were in Stockholm and London. (Clearly no one won the Carmen Sandiego Lifetime Achievement Award this time round.)

For crime-fighters and crowdsourcerers (yes, that’s a new term) around the world this is disappointing – especially if you consider that this kind of lend-us-your-eyes crowdsourcing only really works in populated areas. It doesn’t even take into account the fact that 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, where it is apparently exceedingly difficult to find people. (Just think: even with all of the technology we have today – GPS, smartphones, satellites floating around in the thermosphere – there are vast regions of the world where pirates still ply their trade. Pirates! In 2012! This is no excuse, by the way, Johnny Depp. Please do not make any more Pirates of the Caribbean movies.)

Of course, if you’re into global hide and seek challenges, the TAG Challenge is not the only game in town (“phew!” I hear you say). There is also Geocaching, in which participants try to find hidden items using teamwork, GPS and mobile phones. But, like crowdsourcing, this game works a lot better when the object of your search leaves itself open to being found. If I really wanted to hide my Lucky Charms, I’m not going to post their coordinates online and leave them under a bush at the local dog park.

So even today with all our crowdsourcing and hi-tech toys, you can disappear just by heading somewhere a little off the map (apparently London and the Indian Ocean are equally good for this) or invest in a decent disguise. Does this mean that the power and reach of crowdsourcing is overrated? Perhaps, when it comes to tracking people down. After all, there are quite a few of us humans now.

But this does not mean that crowdsourcing itself is overrated. Ok, so we couldn’t track down a jewel thief in Stockholm. (Did I mention that Pain of Salvation was playing a free concert at Klubben that night? My guess is a strange man would not have stuck out in this crowd).

The more important point is that these sorts of challenges are even plausible. To me, this fact speaks volumes about where humanity is heading. In a world where billions of people are becoming more connected every minute, the power of the crowd is virtually limitless. Harnessing it is another question, of course. (One that we never get tired of discussing.)

  • http://twitter.com/kike_estelles Enrique Estellés

    I think that each problem proposed using crowdsourcing needs a certain
    quantity of people to get done.

    Finding five people all around the
    world is a difficult task that need a really BIG crowd. So I think there wasn’t a problem of overrating the crowd but a problem with the size and dispersion of the crowd.

  • http://www.parliamodivideogiochi.it Tommaso De Benetti

     Good point Enrique. However this crowd had a lot of gadgets to assist the search…