This Week’s Topic: Crowdsourcing

This Week’s Topic: Crowdsourcing

By: Daniel Jeffers - Search Engine Optimization - 2014

There’s a lot of debate about the age of the Internet—which is actually a lot older than the World Wide Web. But tracing out the roots of what is so pervasive now is academic. The truth is that the real online world as we know it is only about 10 years old. We experience a world in which Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Amazon let us do things that are orders of magnitude different than what anybody could even imagine in, say, 1995. Our language is inadequate, and the process of creating and adopting new words is struggling.

New words are important

This quote is from someone introducing a word for a concept that had was in the air but hard to discuss:

“language is not only our servant, when we wish to express — or even to conceal — our thoughts, but that it may also be our master, overpowering us by means of the notions attached to the current words. This fact is the reason why it is desirable to create a new terminology in all cases where new or revised conceptions are being developed. Old terms are mostly compromised by their application in antiquated or erroneous theories and systems, from which they carry splinters of inadequate ideas, not always harmless to the developing insight.”

His word was gene.

Crowdsourcing Named

The word “crowdsourcing” was first used by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 article for Wired Magazine: The Rise of Crowdsourcing. Writers liked the word and combined it with another concept, the Wisdom of Crowds. It also acquired a “magic sauce” connotation—pour it over any pile of ingredients and it will taste great. Writers have used it to imply:

  • Egalitarianism
  • Great solutions
  • Inexpensive answers to complex problems
  • Public involvement
  • Open source software
  • Open source governance

But none of these promises come from the original concept, and mixing the two ideas obscures the limitations and conditions under which it can provide benefits.

Newest Powers: Solving the Deficit and Curing Aids

It used to be funny to add things like “oh, and it will cure cancer and bring world peace” to the long list of magical effects the new next big thing might produce. But recently crowdsourcing was used:

By the “Super Committee” tasked with budget reduction. They announced they would create a website to “crowdsource” a solution. Fortunately this idea seems to have faded.

Writers describing how a highly successful gaming/programming experiment helped decipher and Aids protein called it a victory for crowdsourcing. Others reported the same study as having cured Aids.

Then there’s this story about crowdsourcing a game of Angry Birds during a Formula 1 race. Of the three, it’s probably using the term most accurately…

But Really—What Is It?

Jeff Howe used three distinct examples (as well as one emerging platform) to illustrate the trend he was attempting to name. All four were related to the relationship between business and labor. His sub-head for the article:

Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.

Example #1--iStockphoto, A service that allowed amateur photographers to offer pictures for sale at a very low price. Howe says:

“Unlike professionals, iStockers don’t need to clear $130,000 a year from their photos just to break even; an extra $130 does just fine.” Few professional photographers rely on stock photography sales for income anymore.

Example #2--Web Junk 20 At the time of Howe’s article, this seemed to be a growing trend. Howe cites the show’s producer:

“Hirschorn thinks the crowd will be a crucial component of TV 2.0. “I can imagine a time when all of our shows will have a user-generated component,” he says. The channel recently launched Air to the Throne, an online air guitar contest, in which viewers serve as both talent pool and jury.”

Time has shown that he was only partly right. Viewers do like home-made videos, but they freely share them with each other over Facebook and YouTube—not through network television.

Example #3—InnoCentive The InnoCentive platform allows companies to post research problems that “solvers” can take on for cash awards. Howe profiles one of these solvers:

“He spent four years earning his master’s degree at the world-class particle accelerator in Vancouver, British Columbia, but decided against pursuing a PhD. “I had an offer from the private sector,” he says, then pauses. “I really needed the money.” A succession of “unsatisfying” engineering jobs followed, none of which fully exploited Melcarek’s scientific training or his need to tinker. “I’m not at my best in a 9-to-5 environment,” he says.

None of his examples suggest mass collaboration. Crowd wisdom is not evident, and Howe never makes that connection. Nor are they particularly egalitarian. iStockphoto represents the victory of cheap labor over a whole profession. Web Junk 2.0 is also largely displacing costly professionals with no-cost amateurs. InnoCentive does provide some of the magic the term has come to imply, companies posting projects have found solutions they would be unable to produce internally, and the costs are relatively low. But it’s not collaborative, and not really crowdsourcing in the way the term is generally used. The solvers are very much individuals—often brilliant thinkers who couldn’t fit themselves into traditional career paths. While InnoCentive is a new way for companies to connect to these individuals, it does not really create collaboration.

So Maybe We Need A Lot of Words

Crowdsourcing is a term widely used, and mostly used wrongly. But that isn’t the fault of the word, or even of the people stretching it all out of shape. People need words to describe the trends, events, structures, and patterns that are emerging. Our old vocabulary isn’t enough. Crowdsourcing is too vague, too laden with concepts that don’t really apply, and it gives protective coloration to badly conceived plans and approaches. Even Jeff Howe seems uncomfortable with it.

In 2006, he launched his new blog and called it “Crowdsourcing.” But instead of observing or promoting, he seemed to spend more time attempting to limit its use. His definition clearly excludes most of the current discussions:

Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

By 2009, he was pointing out how some groups, including the Federal Government, were completely missing the conditions required for success, and applying it in places it couldn’t possibly work. The last update to the blog was May of 2010.