Crowdsourcing crowds


Image credits Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell

A few days ago, I noticed a comment that a friend had made on Facebook; he said “My friend ——-‘s wife is in Woodstock” and proceeded to link to a still where she is shown as a 14-year-old at the event at Max Yasgur’s farm forty years ago.

And it made me think. Wouldn’t it be fitting, in an ironic kind of way, to crowdsource crowds? What do I mean?


Well, let’s take Wembley, 30th July 1966. The FIFA World Cup Final. There’s been an apocryphal tale going around that if you counted all the people who say they were there to watch England win, it would be many multiples of the actual number at the ground: the official attendance was 98,000.

Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to start a wiki page, perhaps on Wikipedia, allowing people to name people they knew were at the game, slowly building up to the 98,000? A virtual gathering of event-alumni, as it were.

Wembley and Woodstock represent different challenges, but perhaps none more so than Dealey Plaza, 22nd November 1963. I don’t mean this to be a Warren Commission or any sort of conspiracy theory resuscitation, just an attempt to form a historical record of who was there.


I may be blowing smoke with my three examples above, but the principle is all I wanted to establish. Using crowdsourcing to annotate and confirm the attendance at historical events where no other form of attendance verification is possible.

People tend not to go to such events alone. People tend to notice who’s next to them, who else they spoke to. And we now have the tools to collate that collective knowledge.

I see a number of benefits:

  • First and foremost, by identifying those present, it is possible to create first-hand and then and share eyewitness accounts for momentous events, perhaps again using Wikipedia
  • Secondly, researchers will have a well-defined base of people to talk to; this is particularly important for those events where the participants are approaching the end of their lives
  • Thirdly, I think there is some inestimable value in bringing together these event-alumni, even if only vicariously and virtually. Friendships could blossom, support groups could emerge, new facts could see the light of day.

This isn’t necessarily going to happen without some catalysis. For many historically important events where we still have eyewitnesses, the clock is ticking; so we may need volunteer grandchildren and great-grandchildren to collect and collate the information. But I think it’s worth it.

What do you think? Worth doing? Please comment away.

12 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing crowds”

  1. Dude, if those crowds remembered the 60s, they were not there… Photos of the time are, like memories, too blurred.

    You could do it more easily by using facebook, flickr etc and building up tagged pictures from more granular level. Who did that mega picture of obamaration? Good place to start.

    Love the thought.

  2. JP, this is a good example of innovate-ideation. Your thoughts are already running wild in my head with a mix of business ideation and propositions…it is possible to do this, keeping personal confidentiality and also make money :)

  3. JP This is a brilliant idea. I’ve been working on something similar: re-envigorating mass ethnography (i.e. research methodologies that harness our social cognitive skills to report on what others “inside the wave” are doing, as opposed to simply relying on our unreliable witnesses to our own lives…). Would a mix of the two work?

  4. The biggest problem here is off group connections. A group is in location where everybody knows each other within the group. But each group is surrounded by other groups where most of the time you don’t know any one from the other groups.

    Now how do you verify if that group was actually there or not? And what they say was really what happened?

    “Yeah I was there, My friend here can vouch for it. Hey JP remember the amazing dribbling!”

  5. @marklittlewood :-) I suspect the crowds at Dealey Plaza were a little different from those at Woodstock
    @paulmauricemartin these things can look boring at the start; when the first cave wall scribblings appeared, I am sure there were similar reactions.
    @markearls I am sure they can work together. Even our “unreliable witnesses” will get better by riffing off each other.
    @prakashdogra if you solve a problem you will have a customer. if you solve a problem well then you will have many customers. the key is to focus on the problem you’re solving, not exclusively on the business model. It’s the classic Druckerism “People make shoes, not money”.
    @satish what the six degrees type studies have shown, repeatedly, is that the groups are *not* separate. they are deeply intertwined if you stand back far enough. Look at Facebook Friend Graphs and what Zuckerberg’s been trying to do there. So when you have a large enough number of groups, the overlaps will help weed out the pretenders from the real folk.

  6. I had a similar thought about Woodstock as well on the anniversary last weekend. My concern was that the estimated 500,000 in actual attendance would blossom to 80,000,000 in “Oh yeah… I was there” attendees. The idea of crowd scrapbooking is a great one. Think of people scanning photos, trying to locate the physical spot they occupied, documenting the journey to get there (and mapping all of that), and other sub-stories of the day. It would be remarkable.

  7. Riffing on an idea here, but this is a bit like verification of “x” through weak tie links (a friend of a friend said he was there – 0.1 out of 1.0 total, and build from there etc.). But couldn’t it be used to find people that may have been at a potential crime scene (do you know a friend who might have been in this area at this time). What that might do is drive a witness list that you can then follow up on. mmmm…. anyway, I think the whole area of Attracting The (right) Crowd is a very valid area for business strategy….social action….. government…..

  8. Victor Lewis Smith always called The Blind Beggar “the Tardis pub” because of the number of people who claimed to be there the night Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.

    Maybe people might not want to identify themselves publically for this kind of event, but there’s always the possibility of a wiki where you could finger *somebody else* who was there :-)

  9. Well it depends

    For instance I was at the last proper Queen show ever (with Fred alive) at Knebworth, many more people were allowed in than the official head count, I know because I stood at watched the goings on at the gates

    So there genuinely were lots more people there than official figures would suggest

    At many music events so many folk come in over the barriers, or using various ticket shuffling tricks, that the practical real world audience is much bigger than the official head count

    So coming to a conclusion about what the genuine headcount should be is always harder than you would think

Let me know what you think

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