Why Crowd Sourcing Is a Terrible Idea

Boaty McBoatface
Toot! Toot! All aboard for the wackiest cruise this side of fun!

RRS Boaty McBoatface. That’s what you get when you ask the public what they think about naming an arctic research vessel in the U.K. This was the facetious name that won overwhelmingly in an online poll. But what did the organizers expect? Did they think the public would put their wise minds together and somehow arrive at a respectable, inspired name like RRS Borealis? Or RRS Shacketon? (Okay, an ANTarctic explorer, but a name with gravitas.) The most responsible name voted for was RRS David Attenborough but it only won 11,023 votes to RRS Boaty McBoatface‘s 124,109. The Minister for Stopping Silly Names in the U.K. just ruled that BMcB was “not suitable” for a ship’s name and cancelled the whole thing.

But now they face a problem. My dad used to say that once you ask for someone’s opinion, you’re bound by the answer. And by making such a sanctimonious deal about the democratic process of this exercise, those responsible are going to piss off a lot of people (124,109 people at least). Why ask them in the first place? (Which is probably what they thought as they voted overwhelmingly for Boaty.) But this is just one of the problems with the misguided myth of crowd-sourcing. The other is the mood of the contestants.

The Public knew what they were doing.

The Boaty public were not idiots, though Lady Poppy Smythe-Binkieton of the Ministry probably thought they were (not her actual name; there’s another contest for that). They were actually voicing their opinion of the whole trivial, pandering exercise itself. “Boaty McBoatface” actually translates as “Name it yourself, bozos. We don’t care. It’s a f***in’ boat.” It’s sort of like the ridiculous primary process in the U.S. this year ending up with the most asinine candidates. It’s not that people are idiots when they support reality show clowns for president, it’s just their way of saying to the powers that be (or thought they were), “FU. You asked us our opinion last time and ignored it. So here’s our six foot, orange, middle finger with a bad comb-over.”

Oregon plate
You can’t tell what is going on in this house salad unless you’re close enough to replace the expiration stickers.

We had a similar crowd-sourcing fiasco several years ago here in Oregon when the Department of Motor Vehicles held a state-wide contest to redesign the new license plates. They got so many thousands of entries from professional graphic designers that the three-person board assigned to review and judge them was overwhelmed and arbitrarily announced it was only going to look at the last few submitted. This insulted those thousands of people who thought they were participating in an honest competition and had gotten their entries in early. And when the panel (consisting of a state legislator, an employee of the DMV, and a state police officer) picked the winner, they so altered the design that the “winner” disavowed that it was hers. So Oregon now has one of the butt-ugliest license plates of the 50 states. (They went on to add more, equally hideous options over the years.)

Infinite Monkeys

The whole theory behind crowd sourcing, at least in creativity, is that when you chain an infinite number of monkeys to an infinite bank of keyboards, one of them is bound to write King Lear. Nice in theory. But in reality, what you’re going to get from those infinite monkeys is an infinite amount of poo-slinging.  Otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Crowd sourcing for creative ideas doesn’t work. One reason  is that the participants think whoever is running it must be incompetent to judge, and so they have no respect for the process. You end up with disingenuous submissions at best, or outright sarcasm at worst (like Boaty McBoatface). The result is not just a committee-designed horse turned into a camel; it turns into Cthulhu.

The other reason crowd sourcing creativity doesn’t work lies in how the winners are decided. If you announce that the winner will be decided democratically, by vote, you either get the most bland name possible (as Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”) or, if they are in the mood, something shocking and silly. And then you’re bound by the outcome of the election.

If, on the other hand,  the winner of the competition is selected by the decision of a panel, even if the contestants were sincere and diligent, the judges on the receiving end most likely have no talent, credentials, or imagination themselves to competently pick the best entry.

How do we know this? Because it was their brilliant idea to crowd source the thing in the first place.


  1. John Espinoza

    I wish I had read this article before I tried a crowd-funding campaign to launch a software product. As your dad used to say “once you ask for someone’s opinion, you’re bound by the answer”, I decided not to go through the great amount of effort to do it well on Kickstarter or Indiegogo a second time. The first time crowd funding, I found that you have to contort your product and approach until it’s almost unrecognizable to the originator. Now I’m free to re-launch the product with a strategy that makes sense (www.prezoprocom).

  2. kevin duke

    I just want to confirm what you’re talking about– crowd- SOURCING– where you ask people’s opinions on something largely subjective– or Crowd FUNDING, where you ask the public to spend money on an idea that might not be produced without their $$. Which, if done well, can be extremely successful and lucrative.

    Because they seem very different to me, and John E’s comment, therefore, confuses the heck out of me.

    • Yrrebsne

      Yeah, Kevin. Crowd sourcing of creative. Not crowd funding. Thought I made that clear. Got nothing against crowd funding; any way to get funding (that’s legal) is legit to me.

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