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Thursday Update: When does the Crowd become a Mob?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I’ve been posting  midyear updates on the 2014 trends, which got me thinking about the previous issues of our forecast. The trends CFM wrote about in TrendsWatch 2012 and 2013 are still important forces of change–If any had petered out already, they would have proved themselves to be fads, not trends! So I decided to use some Thursday posts for the rest of the summer to share recent articles illustrating trends we started following in previous years. (Note that the 2012 and 2013 editions of TrendsWatch are still available as free PDF downloads.)

First up, from TrendsWatch 2012, Crowdsourcing.

Every new technology has its potential dark side. As I mentioned in a recent post, peer-to-peer sharing services may be facilitating racial discrimination and eroding accessibility. Drones surveillance may help save elephants and rhinos, but it also nudges us towards an Orwellian future in which we are continually surveyed by a digital panopticon. 

Turns out even crowdsourcing–soliciting content, solutions and suggestions from an undefined set of participants via the internet–can take a nasty turn under the right circumstances. Case in point: crowdsourcing initiatives that recruit the public to identify safety issues and concerns in their neighborhoods. When New York City introduced a interactive map of traffic hazards this year, inviting citizens to map pedestrian hazards and traffic violations, it was designed to be very civil and civic minded. Even if you ratted out a red light runner, it was the cumulative implication of such reports that mattered (“people tend to run red lights here”)–your report didn’t result in a ticket to the violator. 

But can such efforts reflect and amplify people’s fears, whether or not they are justified? An article in the Washington post yesterday aired concerns that  SketchFactor, a crowdsourced safety mapping app that launched this month, promotes racism and profiling. App users file geo-tagged reports on anything from the presence of homeless people to police incidents to noisy construction, categorizing each report (e.g. “weird,” “dangerous”) and assigning a “sketchy” rating of 1-5. Karen McGuire, the sociologist who co-founded SketchFactor, says she did so because she believed an app could “pool everyone’s street smarts, for everyone’s good.” 

But the app only runs on iPhones, so critics point out that right there, the “digital divide” means that relatively more affluent people are being invited to critique city streets. Now people are worrying that the app could be used to “blacklist” communities, with some describing it as a tool for yuppies to air biases and stigmatize people and places that make them uncomfortable. Also, some people are pranking the app, entering fake incidents or humorous reports.  The Washington Post article also points out that the apps mapping doesn’t accurately reflect police reports of crime. 

I can see the potential for this app as a instrument of empowerment, though. The fact the app doesn’t reflect police stats, for example, means it can let users express concern about safety issues the police largely do not address. For example, the WP story says that McGuire intended the app to empower women to report things like cat-calling and street harassment, “invisible” crimes that don’t show up on police blotters. Conceivably, users could report incidents of police harassment or other “sketchy” behavior by authorities, converting it into a tool for the oppressed. (At least, that segment of the oppressed who own iPhones). 

So, food for thought–as you devise ways to harness the power of the crowd, be aware of the potential dark side of our collective human nature. 

An ironic postscript: while a  DC television news crew was doing a story on SketchFactor, their van was broken into and thieves took phones, computers, cameras.  This story doesn’t report whether the crew logged the incident on SketchFactor…

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