Surowiecki: The right way to crowdsource a manhunt

James Surowiecki in the New Yorker:
After Reddit’s attempt to find the Boston Marathon bombers turned into a major failure (for which Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin publicly apologized Monday), the over-all conclusion seems to be that the whole experiment was misguided from the start, and that the Redditors’ inability to identify the Tsarnaev brothers demonstrates the futility of using an online crowd of amateur sleuths to help with a criminal investigation. Or, as the Times’s Nick Bilton put it, “It looks as if the theory of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ doesn’t apply to terrorist manhunts.” That proposition may be true. But Reddit’s failure isn’t evidence for it.

Read the rest: "Reddit and the Marathon Bombers: The Wise Way to Crowdsource a Manhunt" []


  1. “Police suggest entire population in the Elm Terrace area do as follows: Everyone in every house in every street open a front or rear door or look from the windows. The fugitive cannot escape if everyone in the next minute looks from his house. Ready! “Of course! Why hadn’t they done it before! Why, in all the years, hadn’t this game been tried! Everyone up, everyone out! He couldn’t be missed! The only man running alone in the night city, the only man proving his legs!

    -Fahrenheit 451

  2. Firstly: I think reddit is very interesting, but is also a complete circle-jerk.

    That being said I think that any expectation of any online community to successfully ID a suspect from nothing more than the publicly available images of the event was completely irrational. Even the media was a complete failure on the task, and they have access to databases of non-public, high-res photos. Considering the task was essentially impossible I think that criticisms of reddit for this are silly – after all aren’t we free to speculate? Isn’t reddit simply about people discussing stuff anonymously? How is what redditors were doing IRT the Boston Bombing suspect any different to that aim?

    IMO the problem was idiotic media outlets drooling rabidly over unverified claims on reddit and twitter (which was mostly a reddit/media echo chamber). They are supposed to be professional journalists, allegedly bound by codes of integrity and accuracy, while message board cowboys are not. It was mass media publication of rumors from reddit that turned the witch hunt into what it was.

    Furthermore, last Friday (America’s Thursday) I was clicking my way through the various reddit threads on the subject. Someone had sleuthed this image of someone who looks strikingly like the bombing suspect near the location of the blast, with a backpack on the ground that looks disturbingly like the one from the FBI stills, this all next to the 8 year old boy who was tragically murdered in the attack. This is all before I had seen any image of this nature in any of the mainstream media. Seems like some redditors were more ahead of the game than the media.

    Warning image is disturbing due to its implications:

  3. The “wisdom of the crowd” thing is nothing more than mathematical semantics. If you ask 5000 Americans how many jelly beans are in a jar, you would get the same average/mean answer if you asked 5000 Chechens. However, if you crowd sourced (via the internet) 5000 Americans about who may have been  responsible for this, of course you overwhelmingly would get the type of responses that Reddit posted.(Dark skinned, Middle eastern looking Male…) So, I don’t really blame Reddit for fu(king up, I give it up to the “idiocy of the crowd”…prompted by jingoism and the Media, and yes, the Internet.

  4. We should remember that the main reason the FBI knew the suspects’ identities was that one of the victims had seen and remembered the face of one of the bombers. Considering how seriously injured he was, it was incredibly lucky that they had this extra information – they could easily have been on a similar level to Reddit without that lead. Let’s also not forget the injured Saudi guy who was questioned and had his apartment searched with no basis in fact.

  5. Don’t forget the successful crowdsourcing operation at Infowars. There were military personnel there! With backpacks! False flag operation!

    I think Surowiecki is right to the extent that it’s certainly possible to crowdsource a manhunt responsibly. I just don’t think it’s at all easy to set up the incentives in a way that makes it useful, especially when other parties with an overt agenda can set up their own crowdsourcing efforts.

  6. Unstructured Crowdsourcing is useful for information COLLECTION.  Perhaps even for intermediate processing (i.e., this is a picture of a cat, not of marathon spectators.)  But for the final analysis, crowdsourcing is poor at best when it’s totally unstructured. 

    Think about map reduce (  It works because there’s a hierarchy that was planned from the beginning.  It doesn’t structure itself. 

    Reddit as an info-retrieval and processing facility COULD work, if it were harnessed in a rational way.  The way they did the marathon stuff, it’s no wonder chaos ensued.  Because it was chaos from the start.

  7. I think if Reddit had access to the surveillance footage that the police had, they probably could have picked out the suspects faster than the police did.  The relatively scant information they had to work from doomed the whole thing from the start, and the trolls injecting false information into the stream changed the effort from merely useless to harmful. 

  8. Everyone knows the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp-post instead of where he dropped them, “because the light’s better.”

    The various “where’s waldo” photo analysis threads on Reddit were almost entirely focused on photos from several hours before the bombing, long before the bombers arrived at the event. They might as well have been looking at photos from last year’s marathon.

    It still might not be wise to release the photos from the correct timeframe to a crowd-sourced analysis, but without them this wasn’t any kind of test of the concept.

  9. I’m not sure how helpful police obfuscation was either.  They sat on the  picture of the bombers (fromt the CCTV cameras). Did that help?  Social media was finger pointing at random people in the crowd – that the police knew were innocent.  Could the death of the MIT officer, and shut down of the city, been prevented if the police immediately released the CCTV footage? I don’t know.  I’m wondering how things might have turned out if the owner of the CCTV camera released the footage to the public right after the blast. For all the police machinations a lucky break at a 7/11 and a resident checking a boat was what solved this case.

  10. One failure doesn’t tell you all that much about the usefulness of crowdsourcing; at most it shows that the conclusions coming out of such an approach shouldn’t be regarded as infallible, which I think should have been evident already.
    Speaking of approaches that failed, it’s worth pointing out that the Boston Lockdown ultimately didn’t find the suspect – though it may have helped pin him down until he was later spotted, after civilians started being out and about again.

  11. Well on one hand, 9/11 truthers are a crowd sourced hunt for justice.

    On the other hand the Reddit folks were doing some helpful research.  They identified the hats the brothers were wearing and the places they were available for sale.  If the investigation had gone on some of those finds might have been helpful.

    I think its a good thing that regular citizens will be looking over the publicly available evidence in high profile cases.   It does mean that you can’t easily have a cover up in an event like this one.   On the downside, some amateurs will have crazy ideas about what they are seeing and start a conspiracy theory.  

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