In March 2016, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced a contest to name a new polar research vessel. The ship would be 410 feet long, be capable of breaking through 3-meter-thick ice, carry nearly 100 people as well as a helicopter pad, and cost approximately $300 million to construct. The naming contest, of course, was intended to engage the public and raise awareness of the NERC and its new ship.
The contest took an unexpected turn when former BBC personality James Hand submitted a proposal to name the vessel “RSS Boaty McBoatface.” His entry was intended to be humorous (Mr. Hand in fact voted to name the ship after a well-known British environmentalist, Sir David Attenborough). Boaty McBoatface, however, quickly emerged as the leading candidate. As the absurd story spread throughout the English-speaking world, the contest attracted more and more attention, and ultimately caused the NERC website to crash. The NERC tried to maintain a semblance of control over the process, announcing, “We’ve had thousands of suggestions; many of them reflect the importance of the ship’s scientific role by celebrating great British explorers and scientists… We are pleased that people are embracing the idea in a spirit of fun.” But by that time they had already lost control of the story. In the end, Boaty McBoatface claimed over 124,000 votes, with the next four finishers garnering only about 70,000 combined.
The NERC had indicated prior to the start of the contest that the public’s vote would be non-binding, and they ultimately chose to name the vessel the RSS Sir David Attenborough (the public’s fifth-place choice, with just 10,000 votes). While the NERC would nonetheless claim that their contest was a runaway success (thanks to the enthusiasm it generated), other stakeholders – namely, the government and the public – were none too pleased. The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords announced a review of the naming process, and publicly interrogated NERC executives. One Lord asked, “In light of the fact that the new Royal Research Ship is a ship and not a boat, what is [your] assessment of the suitability of the name Boaty McBoatface for that vessel?” (the author assumes he was not subtly advocating for Shippy McShipface). Meanwhile, many voters were disappointed that their collective will had been ignored. One Twitter user lamented, “If this boat isn’t named Boaty McBoatface, then democracy has failed.” A new petition emerged, requesting that Sir David Attenborough change his name to Boaty McBoatface. Many users who had not supported the Boaty McBoatface name were also sour. Several chastised their fellow voters: “Imagine [if] Boaty McBoatface sank and everybody died… imagine the news having to read that out with a straight face,” and, “[This is] not a name that will inspire confidence in its ability to provide credible research.”
This episode highlights one of the key tensions of employing crowds – namely, controlling them. The Boaty McBoatface episode demonstrates how contests can take-on a life and story of their own – and in fact how the crowds themselves can take on a culture of their own – potentially undermining the intent, reputation, or interests of the host. This is not a phenomenon unique to British research vessels. Many (or perhaps all) businesses that rely on crowds must confront the question of where to draw lines for participant behavior, when to block content, and when to expel participants. Facebook is struggling with how to handle so-called “fake news” and the live-streaming of disturbing events. Airbnb is struggling with the alleged discriminatory practices of its housing providers. Wikipedia is a perpetual battleground for different opinions on contentious issues. How to handle these issues will be a challenge for crowd-based models for years to come.