A Guide to Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has grown so quickly and is developing so rapidly that one journalist could never hope to write a comprehensive survey of all the various manifestations and how they compare to one another. But the crowd can. Which is where you come in. Our goal with Assignment Zero is to create the first end-all, be-all survey of every crowdsourcing effort known to humankind, and come up with some lessons about what's working and what's not.

You might be asking, what is “crowdsourcing?”

It all started as a joke, a bout of wordplay between editor and writer. I work at Wired Magazine, and had called my editor with a story pitch. A revolution was afoot, and I wanted to be there to document it. The open source software model—in which communities of people voluntarily collaborate to create a program—was seeping out into the world at large. Wikipedia was just the beginning. In fields ranging from science to publishing to advertising to fashion, the crowd was proving to be not only wise, but creative and opinionated and most of all, prolific. But no one was connecting the dots. The ad people thought it was about advertising, the science people thought it was about science and no one thought it would last. And no one realized the same underlying dynamic at work. But to identify a phenomenon, you need a label for it. We batted various words back and forth before my editor noted that the companies we were talking about were basically outsourcing to the crowd. “Or,” I said, “crowdsourcing.”

We laughed. It seemed silly and fatuous, as portmanteaus always do the first time you hear them. (Spork, anyone?) But higher minds thought otherwise, and by June I’d published an article on crowdsourcing. Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Within a few days the term went from three mentions on Google to 200,000. That number now stands at 2.2 million, and continues to grow. In the interim, crowdsourcing has become the subject of business plans, doctoral theses, hundreds of news articles, a few symposia and, fittingly, a wikipedia entry. It has spun off a host of derivatives, including crowdfunding, crowdcasting, crowdserfing, krautsourcing and crowdslapping. Most of these, believe it or not, are used in total seriousness.

In the article, crowdsourcing was defined somewhat narrowly. It referred to the act of a company taking a job once performed by an employee and outsourcing to a large, undefined group of people through the form of an open call. But language is a slippery beast, and the term has come to refer to the application of open source principles to any use outside of software. And that’s as it should be. The point of open source is that anyone could contribute, and this inclusivity forms the beating heart of crowdsourcing. Who better to determine its ultimate meaning than the crowd itself?

Likewise, a consensus is beginning to form around how crowdsourcing works. I never attempted to differentiate between different forms of labor in my article—the sheer fact of crowdsourcing seemed wondrous enough. But at this point we can break down crowd contributions into three categories.

    • Tapping the Collective Brain: The crowd isn't always wise per se, but the diversity of knowledge and experience inherent in large networks, companies are now realizing, is an inestimable resource. Examples: Yahoo Answers, The Netflix Prize.

    • The Crowd Creates: This is the one we're familiar with. People take photographs, record amateur skateboard videos or write florid verse and post it online. Examples: Youtube, CurrentTV, A Million Penguins, Second Life, countless others.

    • The Crowd Filters: Who better to sift through all that crowd creation than the crowd itself? Detractors complain this creates lowest-common denominator rule. I disagreee. Youtube may be about silly pet tricks, but the site's "most popular" function insures that the most entertaining pet tricks rise to the top: Examples: Digg, Dell Ideastorm, American Idol.

None of these functions are mutually exclusive. In fact, the smartest crowdsourcing ventures combine two or more functions into one package. The T-Shirt company taps the crowd to acquire designs for its shirts, then puts them to work once more choosing which designs should be printed onto shirts. And that’s really just the beginning. For the last month I’ve kept a rough list of various companies, institutions and individuals utilizing some form of crowdsourcing. It’s up past 100 and shows no signs of slowing down.

The fact is, if I sat down to write the same story now, I wouldn't know where to begin. But that’s what makes this such a wonderful opportunity. Where one of us would fail, all of us working together will succeed.

Ants, Turking and Hearty Thanks

Jeff Howe's picture

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks.
@Randy: Yes, I think the ant analogy's a good one. So did Steven Johnson, who made them a central focus of his seminal book, Emergence, which theorized about the coming age of collective self-organization while most of us were still in awe of Google. Check it out if you haven't already.
@Jennifer: Turking. You've hit on one of my ideé fixes. Why do people do what they do? I understand why thousands of readers of TPM Muckraker would self-organize to pour over 3,000 emails to look for evidence of corruption in the justice department. I don't understand why they'll perform digital grunt work for pennies. It's testament to the appetite for the opportunity to conduct this kind of labor on their time, however. I certainly don't think of MT as exploitive. People become Turkers of their own free will (and, it must be noted, some of the HITs are pretty cool.)

Jeff Howe
Contributing Editor, Wired
917 992 6531

Convergence Culture

peterpoe's picture

I read this book by Henry Jenkins. There's an interesting chapter dedicated to "knowledge communities" with many useful insights about what "collective knowledge" means and how it works.


More Thoughts on Crowdsourcing

Tom Foley's picture

Learning at any age should be a passion...a fire in the mind.

Tom Foley

Are we dressing something old in a fancy new suit? Citizens have been writing letters to the editor for years.
Regulars, submit pieces monthly, and many of the more controversial subjects raised stir debate and generate more letters in response.

Newspapers used to pay people who had some empirical journalism skills to work as stringer reporters or photographers.
Crowdsourcing, stringers, citizen letters to the editor?
Help me, I'm just trying to clear a foggy image...


As a member of the National Writers Union I am startled by editors who are willing to so enthusiasticly recruit unpaid labor to produce a product for which a handful of chosen staffers will be paid salaries. Professor Jay Rosen urges all to "steal my idea" and notably not steal my tenure or steal my NYU pension plan. One wonders how enthusiastic these revolutionaries in citizen journalism movement would be if they were tossed into the rough and tumble freelance world.

Thoughts on Crowdsourcing

Tom Foley's picture

Learning at any age should be a passion...a fire in the mind.

Tom Foley

When information is tossed in this crowdsourcing pot, tempering and refining truth must become its sole reallity.
Catch-words like "crowdsourcing" are easy to say. Working to filter the good from the bad data submitted will be the real
test of this experiment. I'm excited and curious to see what happens.

Crowdsourcing is the work of ant colonies, yes?

Randy Burge's picture

Researchers in the complex adaptive systems space analyze the behavior of ant colonies for their self-organizing, open sourced societies – inspired and guided by pheromones – but the ants are effective little crowdsourcers none the less if you have ever watched an ant trail. Could the possibilities and capacities of the internet be the equivalent cyber pheromone of sorts for the human animal seeking to enhance the communal welfare?

I never thought of myself as

I never thought of myself as an ant before... I like the idea of wiggling my antenna!
Your remarks were well said.

Mechanical Turking

Hi there, Thanks for sharing this great site...and of course for coining the phrase "crowdsourcing" - curious about your thoughts on mechanical turks and the "turker" community.