Crowdsourcing – behind the buzz word

19 Sep

Wednesday night I had the pleasure of attending a talk at the ICA on ‘Crowdsourcing’ – presented by Wired’s Jeff Howe who originally coined the term in 2006. It has since been developed by other theorists and has become an increasingly known buzz word in our industry. The debate came strongly from a journalists point of view, rather than a theorist. Some audience members did struggle with the fact there was not always a right / wrong, yes / no, answer to Crowdsourcing, nevertheless, it was a thought-provoking evening.

Jeff has two definitions of Crowdsourcing:

The White Paper Version: 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.

The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

We debated some interesting themes surrounding crowdsourcing…

Authority vs. Electronic Crowd

Some audience members viewed ‘Crowdsourcing’ as some sort of act of laziness. This raises the question – are the brands that are involving crowds in new innovations either smart in the age of co-creation, or do they merely have a lack of ambition? Some institutions may see ‘Crowdsourcing’ as a cost-cutting labor saving solution, but this is certainly not the way Jeff looks at it (nor I). However, the balance between controlling  crowds vs. complete crowd control, is a complex issue. The best examples of effective ‘Crowdsourcing’, are those where the line between authority and crowd is blurred, and is in fact more of a mutual collaboration.


The notion of ‘by the people for the people’ makes crowdsourcing instinctively democratic. Threadless for example is the linchpin of democracy. Threadless is a perpetual, online T-Shirt design competition. Artists submit their designs; users vote on them; the highest-rated designs are printed and sold back to the community. Simple. Brilliant. Perhaps an old example, but one where the crowd not only provides the services, but where the crowd itself is self-evangalising. Not only that, it’s hugely cost effective. Threadless is selling 60,000 T-Shirts a month, has a profit margin of 35 percent – for a company with fewer than 20 employees that’s pretty darn good!

Sturgeon’s Law

All this participation from crowds is all well and good, but isn’t the majority of user-generated content crap? The answer is yes! Sturgeon’s Law is the notion that “ninety percent of everything is crap”. You only have to browse the mindless dribble on YouTube, Digg, Flickr, to know that this is true. That’s not to say crowdsourcing is all crap though – there is a valuable 10%, you just need to find it. We’re begging to see various forms of filtering – this can be as simple as a thumbs up on comments, or Digg’s “Digg it” filterting system.

So while there may be a lot of dribble, we have still seen cases where the collective minds of many can accomplish huge tasks. Jeff spoke about InnoCentive – an instituion that crowdsources research and development for biomedical and pharmaceutical companies. It is one of the largest commercial examples of crowdsourcing.   Anyone, anywhere, with interest and Internet access can become an InnoCentive Solver member.


Monetisation is a grey area – while some see crowdsourcing merely as collective intelligence of the Internet, others see it as collaboration but for commercial purposes. The term came about from Jeff observing the power of bands and fans on MySpace – while there may be money involved, to me this seems more about community and content.

Take iStock for example. iStock started because Bruce Livingstone didn’t have the money to launch a traditional stock company. So he gave his photos away, and found a community of other talented people willing to give their photos away too. The value, as many content companies are still struggling to understand, wasn’t necessarily in the thing itself. iStock was built on passion, not on dollars.

The most pertinent thing I took away from this evening, was the notion that ‘Crowdsourcing’ should not be viewed as a solution to a problem or a theory that can be readily applied. To me, it is little more than an observation of human behaviour in the digital space, which can be hugely effective. I’m sorry to tell you there is no black and white, yes or no, right or wrong, view to ‘Crowdsourcing’ – like many other buzz words in this industry.

If this is a topic you happen to find fascinating, you can check out the book (even the cover is crowdsourced!), or read Jeff’s fantastic blog.


2 Responses to “Crowdsourcing – behind the buzz word”

  1. Jeff Howe September 20, 2008 at 12:33 am #

    Thanks for the kind and, more to the point, thorough and thoughtful post, Nicola. I especially appreciate that you’re happy to embrace the gray nature of crowdsourcing. I’ve always loved that F. Scott Fitzgerald definition of intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at one time.” Crowdsourcing is both good and bad, effective and a huge waste of resources, the harbinger of exploitive labor practices and the liberation of a vast, previously untapped resource of human creativity, knowledge and intelligence. How do we square these conflicting realities? We don’t, really. We accept that human behavior is complex, and fractal, and do our best to draw multiple lessons and resist facile conclusions. Again, thanks for kind post.


  1. Digging a hole for the mob « Jenny Williams - October 26, 2008

    […] Howe said: “I’ve always loved that F. Scott Fitzgerald definition of intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at one time.” And perhaps this is how we […]

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