‘Mob rule’ and ‘herd mentality’ are just two of the many phrases used by journalists to criticise ignorant or sheep-like behaviour in large masses of people. The internet, though, helps to bring crowd wisdom to life. ‘Crowdsourcing’ is a term coined in 2006 by technology expert Jeff Howe, who became interested in how companies were engaging customers in key corporate functions, such as marketing. That year, Doritos gave an example by launching its Crash the Superbowl campaign, inviting snack fans to create their own Doritos commercials and upload them to a website for user rating. The winner was broadcast in a commercial break during Superbowl XLI.
Since then, crowdsourcing has had a positive impact on the world of intellectual property (IP) through the Peer to Patent initiatives in the US and UK. These enable technical experts of all types to sign up and provide their insights on select patent applications. But this year, web-based crowds have also played major roles in the gathering of raw evidence – firstly, for litigation in a US trademark suit; and secondly, for the prosecution of key participants in the UK riots.
1) Mexican standoff over restaurant brands
As Rebecca Burn-Callendar wrote in her NewLegal Review blog of July 2010, voluntary input provided vital aid for the defence case in British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh, in which science writer Singh was sued over his 2008 Guardian article that criticised chiropractic treatment. In that case, Singh’s defence team received huge amounts of unsolicited support material from medical experts who were keen for the writer’s argument to prevail – and prevail it did. That success, though, hinged upon a concerted surge of specialist data, which could never have come from more casual web resources. But a US trademark case this year showed that valuable evidence material is also generated through everyday online activity.
Physical crowds are particularly fond of restaurants, and that fondness is mirrored in numerous online communities where the qualities of dining venues are scrutinised every bit as closely as patent filings are by technical experts. This was instrumental in the completion of Chipotle Mexican Grill v Chipotles Grill of Jonesboro Inc, heard in the summer at the US District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, in which the first company sued the second over likelihood of confusion, citing the similarity of its name. In his ruling on the case in June, US district judge Brian S Miller stated that the similarity, while almost identical, ‘is not enough to establish intent’ to create confusion. However, the plaintiff’s case was much strengthened by ‘substantial’ evidence drawn from the online community. That included emails from customers familiar with – and faithful to – Chipotle Mexican Grill, alerting it to the presence of a potential imitator. But that wasn’t all.
‘Also submitted,’ wrote Miller, ‘are restaurant forum web pages. These reflect confusion as to the ownership of defendants’ restaurants. One website, urbanspoon.com, even lists plaintiff’s website as the website of defendants’ restaurants. A restaurant review on associatedcontent.com also seems to link defendants to plaintiff. There is actual confusion. Further, the e-mails and websites attached to plaintiff’s motion demonstrate that even after inquiry to outside sources, potential customers are still confused.’
So, everyday web chatter by enthusiasts of spicy food had left no room for doubt that consumers had problems distinguishing between the two chains. The Tex-Mex set had crowdsourced a convincing body of evidence, entirely at its leisure.
2) Decoding the riot act with social media
Rather less leisurely was the debate over the role of online and networked media in the recent UK riots. As NewLegal Review reported in August, much of the government’s official post-mortem of the events focused on incitements to violence issued through Blackberry Messenger (BBM), the texting service used exclusively by owners of Blackberry handsets. There was also parliamentary criticism of rallying cries that were streamed across Facebook and Twitter – and heated debate over potential shutdowns of social networks in the event of renewed delinquency.
But like the concept of the crowd itself, the online footprint of the riots had a positive flipside – often including flashes of ingenuity. In parallel with the goading statements tapped out by pro-riots Facebook and Twitter users, others who still believed in the value of law and order responded by creating anti-riots areas and feeds on those sites. The pictorial data that users amassed from their own snapshots of the looting was quickly gathered up by London’s Metropolitan Police (aka, the Met), who added it to closed-circuit TV stills taken in shops. The wealth of material was then published on Flickr – the internet’s leading social network for images.
That rogues’ gallery soon established itself as a vital component in Operation Withern, the Met’s drive to prosecute those responsible for the crime wave. On 7 November, the Met released pictures from the Flickr gallery of 71 people who had been convicted of riots-linked crimes as a result of Withern, their jail sentences adding up to at least 100 years. The Met announced: ‘Tireless work by the Operation Withern team has resulted in 1809 cases being brought before the courts; of those, 618 people have been sentenced with 255 being jailed. The cases of 1058 people charged during the disorder are still ongoing.’
While the prosecution effort has assumed the greater part of the riots’ crowdsourcing dimension, it does not constitute the whole story. Another online resource that emerged from the ashes was a Riot Map built by citizen researchers Jon Robson, Priyesh Patel and Daniel Saul. Using a combination of Google technology, research from the Guardian and government deprivation data, the trio plotted a correlation between riot hotspots and the UK’s most deprived areas. As well as making a useful springboard for political debate through its diagnostic element, the map may also serve as a valuable ready-reckoner for predicting where riots could occur again in the future.
It’s amazing what can be achieved just by hanging out with the right crowd.