Last year, 71 out of the 42,000 entrants in the New York City Marathon cheated in some way.  None did so as spectacularly as Rosie Ruiz, who rode the subway in the 1979 NYC marathon and was exposed as a cheat in Boston later that year (though Dane Patterson, the Biggest Loser Contestant who recently shaved three miles off the course with her NBC crew in tow comes close).  But every year, a number of folks cut corners in one way or another and in so doing undermine the integrity of the race.

Cheats and spammers and people who try to beat or abuse the system will always be out there, and you have to guard against them.  But what do you do in situations, like with the marathon, where nearly everybody does what they’re supposed to do and you have .2% of the people breaking the rules? How do you decide how much you need to protect, and how do you do it in a way that doesn’t kill the very thing you’re trying to create?

Airlines and airports mess this one up all the time.  For example, today I was told by a stewardess on a Finnair flight that my laptop has to go in the overhead bin for takeoff – not in my seat pouch or in my bag under the seat in front of me.  More amusing still, not long ago I went through airport security in Newark with an unopened, 6oz Stonyfield liquid yogurt in my bag.  When it was unearthed, I was told by the security agent that I could either walk back to the other side of security to drink the yogurt OR I had to throw it out.  No drinking the yogurt on this side of the X-Ray machine allowed.

Neither of these rules (overhead bin for laptops; on which side of security you can drink your more than 3oz of liquids) was written anywhere, but norms and habits develop among enforcers, and absent any feedback loop from the 99.8% of people who are playing by the rules, enforcement will tend to creep forward until the customer experience comes under serious fire.  If you have any doubts about this, try to get through security in just about any office building in New York City.

Knowing this, you have to be very honest with yourself about how big a deal it is when people break the rules.  At the NYC Marathon, it’s easy to monitor individuals without bringing down the system.  When you create a community (online, volunteer, etc.) and hand the reins of control over to that community, it’s not as easy to decide.  How closely do you want the members of the community to hew to your message, your values, your brand, the topics you’d like to see discussed?  If you take too much control you risk killing the enthusiasm, energy and sense of ownership on the part of participants.

When organizations made all the decisions, they could pretend that this was a marginal question.  More and more it’s going to be coming front and center, and we’ll all have to figure out where to draw the line.

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