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“Boaty McBoatface”: the British Government’s Epic Fail in Crowdsourcing

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How the crowd overwhelmed the British public sector with a witty name.

In early 2016, the British Government’s National Environment Research Council (NERC) was on the cusp of christening its brand new $287 million polar research vessel. In what probably seemed like a good idea at the time, the NERC decided to engage in some participatory democracy and leverage the power of crowdsourcing to determine the name of its state-of-the-art ship…

The yet-unnamed $287M vessel

It’s easy to understand why the NERC experimented with crowdsourcing. As we have learned in our class, crowdsourcing generally cuts down on overhead costs, generates a wider ideational funnel, and, if done right, creates a sense of community that increases user engagement. However, as the NERC learned, the wisdom of the crowd can also lead to unexpected outcomes…

Once the crowdsourcing campaign went live, a BBC radio presenter named James Hand offhandedly joked about submitting the name “Boaty McBoatface” for the competition. Rather unexpectedly, Boaty McBoatface vent completely viral. It took off and became the clear front-runner in the crowdsourced vote. People quickly disregarded more dignified names put forward by the NERC, such as Shackleton and Endeavour, among others. In fact, the name became so popular that NERC’s site crashed due to the explosive growth in web-traffic (see below). Boaty McBoatface became an overnight cultural sensation, and James Hand even apologized for his role in the affair.

Boaty McBoatface overpowering NERC website 

 

A very British apology

Of course, in the end, Boaty McBoatface won the vote. Indeed, it received almost 125,000 votes, more than four times greater than the second-place submission. Given what we have learned in our course about crowdsourcing, I draw two lessons from what happened here…

First, the design and scope of the crowdsourced activity matters. In this instance, the NERC gave the crowd free rein with a blank write-in option for the new name. This gives the crowd the power to do whatever they want, including engage in some humorous irreverence. However, the NERC could have designed its crowdsourcing to constrain the scope of possible outcomes. They could have done this by limiting submissions to an acceptable category (for example, “19th Century British Explorers” or “famous naturalists”). This would be like how we saw in class that Weathernews constricted its first crowdsourced picture campaign to only Japanese cherry-blossom trees.

Second, the curation of the crowd is key. It’s impossible to know the crowd’s response beforehand, as the creative potential of the crowd is limitless. However, the risk is that the crowd will provide solutions considered off-brand or inappropriate for the organization. This is when the management team can add value by curating the crowd’s replies. By whittling down the crowd’s responses to only those deemed close enough to the original intent of the campaign, management can curate the options that decision-makers can then view and select. The NERC could have done this by “hiding” the crowdsourced names, and putting them up for voting only after they had been vetted through the curation phase. This would be like how Tongal curated the crowdsourced-creatives’ submissions before presenting the options to corporate marketing professionals.

In the end, however, the NERC got the last laugh. They ignored the wisdom of the crowd and named the new vessel the RRS Sir David Attenborough, after the famed broadcaster and naturalist of the same name. However, the NERC did honor the crowd by naming the vessel’s lead remotely-operated research submarine “Boaty McBoatface.”

The real Boaty McBoatface

Sources:

  • https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/europe/boaty-mcboatface-what-you-get-when-you-let-the-internet-decide.html
  • http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-jersey-35860760
  • https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/boaty-mcboatface-and-six-other-times-when-online-polls-sailed-adrift-a6944426.html
  • https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/boaty-mcboatface-wins-poll-to-name-polar-research-vessel
  • https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/03/13/boaty-mcboatface-minisub-named-public-vote-sent-first-antarctic/

 

7 thoughts on ““Boaty McBoatface”: the British Government’s Epic Fail in Crowdsourcing

  1. Austin, I have no words! What a fabulous choice for a blog post. Few things make me more happy than the Boaty McBoatface debacle. It is an excellent example of trying to engage the ‘wisdom’ and participation of crowds and what can happen when their plan does not align with yours, as the organisation. I do wonder however how wise it was to not name the research vessel Boaty McBoatface. I understand why they would not want to, but to give the naming rights to the crowd and then take it away could be seen as undemocratic.

  2. Such a great story — up there with Colbert trying to get a module of the space station after him (he eventually got a treadmill within said module). Both of your prescriptions are sound. The first as you’ve pointed out, risks creative possibilities missed; the second is a sound practice being used by several actors (e.g., Lay’s). To Eliza’s point, it is critical to communicate these non-democratic screens/ gates to the crowd upfront, so they do not feel betrayed when a) management unilaterally nix the “Boaty McBoatface” suggestions, or b) curate suggestions so that the crowd can’t even see the momentum behind such a suggestion. Such communication will likely cost some engagement, but at the same time may make engagement more deliberate.

  3. Great post. I agree that curation was probably the best strategy in this case. I think that this is especially important when crowd sourcing reaches out for input from users who are not personally invested in the outcome (as opposed to individuals who wanted to see the cherry blossoms in the weather news example). Hopefully, Boaty McBoatFace serves as a reminder to platforms trying to leverage the crowd to the potential downsides of no curation.

  4. Great article. I think these types of crowdsourcing activities require curation and ongoing monitoring. Companies should be mindful of different outcomes and design the process to minimize these brand diluting activities.

  5. While I agree that curation is important, there is something to be said for the awareness that virality like this delivers. Even thought the outcome was a silly name, many thousands more people were exposed to the NERC than would otherwise have been, which could result in future goodwill for the organization.

  6. This is why we can’t have nice things! Just kidding—NERC’s choice to shift the “Boaty McBoatface” name to the dumpy little autosub was super weak. The people spoke, and there was nothing offensive about it, so slap the name on that big red hull loud and proud. NERC forfeited a chance to cultivate a long-term fanbase in the general public because they were afraid of a tiny whiff of impropriety in the moment.

  7. Great post! I particularly like the need for the curation of content as a complete necessity. Crowdsourcing can be a great option for generating ideas and finding creative content, however it also opens the door for potentially offensive or dangerous content as well if it is not curated and monitored. I’ve seen in many cases like this, specifically highly public and visible issues, that have implemented a curation and review step before content goes live for additional voting or moves forward in the selection process. While crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, it can also be quite risky to employ.

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