Crowdsourcing: the “crowd” is key to its success

Just last year, an article in Forbes.Com attracted lots of attention with its criticism of Crowdsourcing.

“Crowdsourcing” refers to the phenomenon of opening up a web site to the public and seeing what happens.  The term was invented by Jeff Howe in 2006 who used it to describe popular web sites such as Wikipedia and iStockPhoto.

The article in Forbes titled “The Myth of Crowdsourcing” was written by Dan Woods.  While he acknowledges that crowdsourcing can be very successful (the $1 million dollar Netflix Prize, Wikipedia, and Open Source software), he believes that the success in these examples comes from highly motivated individuals and that the crowd for the most part is irrelevant:

There is no crowd in crowdsourcing.  There are only virtuosos, usually, uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field.  Frequently, these innovators have been funded through failure after failure.  From their fervent brains spring new ideas.  The crowd has nothing to do with it.  The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.

Dan believes that the same is true for content sites such as Wikipedia:

Wikipedia seems like a good example of a crowd of people who have created a great resource. But at a conference last year I asked Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales about how articles were created.  He said that the vast majority are the product of a motivated individual.  After articles are created, they are curated–corrected, improved and extended–by many different people.  Some articles are indeed group creations that evolved out of a sentence or two.  But if you took away all of the articles that were individual creations, Wikipedia would have very little left.

So, is Dan correct?  Is crowdsourcing, as it is popularly understood, dead wrong?

In my view, to properly evaluate crowdsourcing, it is necessary to look at it from the perspective of the organization that supports it.  Netflix wanted innovation beyond what it could get in-house.  So, it offered $1 million dollars to anyone who could beat its experts by 10%.

Wikipedia began originally as a Nupedia, a free online encyclopedia whose content was “written by experts and reviewed under a formal process.”  Wikipedia was the side project that was meant to be a “feeder” project for Nupedia.

My point is that crowdsourcing is not about crowd collaboration as much as it is about opening up content to the general public using web technologies.  The alternative to crowdsourcing is going in-house for content or if you go to the public, then you make sure that an “editor” or a “publisher” is the gatekeeper before content is accepted.  Crowdsourcing in the case of both Netflix and Wikipedia occurred as an alternative to the standard, “in-house approach”.

Crowdsourcing, then, is really about opening up a process to anyone who wants to participate.  Sure, much of the content will not be as high in quality as the “in-house” method but more importantly, people who were previously outside the system can now participate.

Dan admits that the main reason for his opinion piece is that he doesn’t want people to lose sight of the importance of individuals:

So what’s my problem?  Why does it bug me that people think crowdsourcing is something it is not?  Why do I care that people think a crowd is capable of individual virtuosity? What bugs me is that misplaced faith in the crowd is a blow to the image of the heroic inventor.  We need to nurture and fund inventors and give them time to explore, play and fail.  A false idea of the crowd reduces the motivation for this investment, with the supposition that companies can tap the minds of investors on the cheap.

I am very glad that Dan wrote this.  I believe that this is a very important point.  Crowdsourcing works best when we recognize it as an opportunity for authors and contributors to “explore, play and fail”.  Indeed, crowdsourcing fails when we lose sight of the individuals that make it up or the great effort required in filtering out the best content.

To be clear, the “crowd” for me is synonymous with “out-of-house” content.

That’s why, in my opinion, the crowd is key to the innovation and quality of crowdsourced content.  If you knew ahead of time who would be providing all the value, then there would be no need for crowdsourcing:  you could do it all in-house.  But of course, you never know such things.  A web site, such as HubPages, open to the “crowd”, is the best way for the nonfamous to show their stuff.

6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing: the “crowd” is key to its success

  1. Actually, I have never heard of “crowsourcing” before, and I think it is a wonderful idea for anyone who couldn’t share himself or herself before to be able to do so.

  2. Interesting points..

    To create an ambience for highly motivated individuals to participate in a process which they would love to be a part of seems to be the point you have been referring to in this article.

    However you haven’t quoted some of the results generally attributed to crowd outsourcing. The study by a gold mining company, which found that people who had no background in mining gold, were 85% accurate than experts, in predicting the location of gold in a region. These are people who are just clicking randomnly in a map. This is making one think of the conditions under which an ordinary person gets to make a prediction.

    This I feel is another unknown and beneficial factor regarding crowd outsourcing. Individuals are important. No one should ever deny that. But the crowd has its own consciousness and affects different businesses in a postive manner.


    Good article though 🙂

    Thank you for that.

  3. Hi Santhip,

    Thanks for adding the additional details. I agree with you that it well worthwhile presenting the different successes of crowdsourcing.

    My aim in the post was to respond directly to Dan Woods’ argument that “there is no crowd in crowdsourcing.” I am very glad you enjoyed the post.



  4. Dan is looking at the crowd to make a decision in crowdsourcing when really it is using all the individuals trials and failures to find that one great idea. Not just funding one person and hoping they find what you are looking for. Like a mutating virus, it take a huge sample to get 1 mutation not just using the same strain over and over again.

  5. Everyone who writes of crowdsourcing ignores the economics factor, which is always the primary influence. Sourcing ideas from a “crowd” is always cheaper than hiring a specialist, and, worse, the chooser, also influenced by economics, will select the least expensive, and not necessarily best, solution.
    If you doubt this, consider that the components of every manufactured item are put out to bid. Crowdsourcing is the same practice, applied to creative needs.
    Further, the illusion that crowdsourcing attracts experts fails because experts work by contract, not speculation.

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