Game Life

Crowdsourcing: A Definition

  • I like to use two definitions for 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.

Crowdsourcing in the News

  • March 25, 2007: New York Times and NPR's On the Media
    Another twofer: First, in yesterday's Times Jason Pontin takes a first-hand look at Mechanical Turk, and Jeff Bezos' notion of "artificial artifical intelligence." His experience is less than satisfactory, and a reminder that not everything should be crowdsourced.

    My favorite NPR show, On the Media, interviews TPM Muckraker's Paul Kiel about the site's recent experiment in crowdsourcing. Muckraker asked its readers to parse the 3,000 emails pertaining to the firing of federal prosecutors that Dept. of Justice released last week. Within hours Muckraker readers were ferreting out compromising passages, some of which led to news leads for MSM pubs, further evidence that the crowd has a promising future in performing investigative functions. Shady politicians (is that phrase redundant?) beware.
  • March 19, 2007: New York Times and Detroit Free Press
    Today's a twofer: The New York Times' David Carr writes about Assignment Zero in his column, "The Media Equation." I edited David a few times at the now defunct (It shined brightly but briefly). If memory serves, he could recall obscure circulation figures on certain newspapers and magazines from memory. No mean media critic, in other words. So I was elated to see him give Assignment Zero a cautiously optimistic treatment.

    Crowdsourcing also made the Detroit Free Press today, where religion writer David Crumm writes about how theologians and pastors are using the model to let their congregations "shape a church's worship and programs." I haven't followed the crowdsourcing in religion angle as much as I'd like, and this is a great introduction to the subject.
  • March 16, 2007: Radio: WNYC - Crowdsourcing and Music
    Does user-generated content threaten the recording industry? That presumes there's still a recording industry to speak of. I'm kidding—kinda. But CD sales get more and more anemic and companies building businesses out of unknown bands—call it music by the crowd—look more and more interesting (and viable) all the time. Yesterday I was on one of my favorite WNYC shows, "Soundcheck" discussing all this and more. Stream or download the show here. You can listen to my segment alone (it runs about 20 minutes), but I recommend you listen to the opening segment on the bizarre-but-intriguing Midomi is a social networking site that allows you to search for music by singing a few bars into a microphone connected to your computer. Soundcheck brought in a trained opera singer to put Midomi's software to the test, with humorous results. American Idol-meets-Myspace-meets-iTunes-meets-voice-recognition-software. That's some mash-up. What will those Stanford smarties dream up next?
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June 02, 2006

Crowdsourcing: A Definition

Late last week I pointed to a Wikipedia entry as evidence that crowdsourcing had become a bonafide neologism. A stronger argument for the term's adoption, however, is that the it's starting to appear without reference to me or the original article in Wired. I couldn't be happier with this development, but I'm also noticing that the word is being used somewhat interchangably with Yochai Benkler's concept of commons-based peer production. Mindful that language is slippery, and meaning itself largely determined by the crowd, I'm content to allow the crowd define the term for itself (in no small part because I'm powerless to stop it.) But I would be remiss if I did not play my own role in that process.

Bruce Sterling, a fellow writer at Wired and one of the biggest brains in the business, rightfully pointed out yesterday that it's a mistake to treat crowdsourcing as a synonym for peer production:

I could spend all day trying to explain how Jeff Howe's "crowdsourcing" has a different structure than "commons-based peer production." This would be no mere academic hairsplitting, either. You see, it's like mapping the mountains and finding two seams of gold. In one, a bunch of hairy-bearded *NIX prospectors are standing hip-deep in the water panning for lumps of gold, while in the other, Three Initial Corporation is data-mining vast spoilage heaps of almost-useless rubble.... I could go on. Others most certainly will.

And indeed, there's no hair-splitting about it. But before I present my definition of the term, I'd like to provide some backstory and context. In January Wired asked me to give a sort of "reporter's notebook" style presentation to some executives. I had recently been looking into common threads behind the ways advertising agencies, TV networks and newspapers were leveraging user-generated content, and picked that for my topic. Later that day I called my editor at Wired, Mark Robinson, and told him I thought there was a broader story that other journalists were missing, ie, that users weren't just making dumb-pet-trick movies, but were poised to contribute in significant and measurable ways in a disparate array of industries. Mark and I agreed that while the fact of peer production itself was becoming well-documented (witness Wired's early, and astute, take on the phenomenon, by Wired editor Thomas Goetz), no one we were aware of had documented the ways in which corporations were employing intelligent networks to put peer production to work. Our emphasis all along was on the verb, not the noun, a telling and revealing distinction.

Thus the term crowdsourcing (a term, for the record, coined jointly by Mark and myself that day, in a fit of back-and-forth wordplay). Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.

For the purposes of the article, we set even stricter parameters: We decided we would only look at case studies involving big established companies (like Getty, Viacom and P&G). For the purposes of the blog, I advocate a slightly more inclusive definition. I interpret crowdsourcing to be taking place any time a company makes a choice to employ the crowd to perform labor that could alternatively be performed by an assigned group of employees or contractors, even if the company is just now putting up a shingle. In other words, crowdsourcing need not require an active shift from current employees (or again, contractors) to the crowd; it can start with the crowd.

Finally, a note on provenance: As has been rightfully pointed out, Crowdsourcing owes a debt to James Surowiecki's eye-opening and entertaining book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But as Suowiecki himself notes in that book, we both owe a further debt to Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a work from the early Victorian era that should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject.


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Thanks for the up-date Jeff. I found it interesting when searching for examples of crowdsourcing to find examples of an economic nature that quite frankly appear to be negative forms of the concept, for me at least. In short, large organizations using the method to by-pass the burdens of, health benefits, paid holidays unions and all the other overheads that come with more traditional forms of employee/employer relationships. I say negative because that is basically using the principle to cut expenditures, anyway an economic engine that is already in overdrive, and “use” the crowd principle purely based on economic gain! The question that arises for me is age old and applies to most already existing forms of the above-defined relationships. It is of a moral/rights nature and I would suggest that the evolving market place should also be evolving on principles that are healthy for the larger community. One might find such a statement naive but it is, in my mind, central the long-term health of the “social order.” The use of crowdsourcing for purely economic gain is the antithesis of what should be evolving along with what new technologies are making possible. The question is, who is going to take on that responsibility? It appears to me that in a point in the middle of a circle image, with the point being those who are exerting economic gain and the circle being the crowd, that the circle might have to provide moral responsibility to the process because the point has already demonstrated that it’s not going to happen. This all might sound rather esoteric but surely important for long term societal health. Rome did not fall in a day but it fell!

I am very interested in how the crowd might use crowdsourcing and wonder if there is any forward looking person out there who might have some ideas!

Jeff, did you catch anything? Alan.

Jeff your article is great. I just blogged about it. too bad you don;t have trackback on your blog. I think crowdsourcing is sort of an inverse of longtail. what do you think?

I don't think many Americans fully comprehend just how disruptive this idea really is. It has the potential to be far more disruptive than outsourcing because it provides the mechanism to unleash the creative abilities of millions of entrepreneurs outside the USA that have never been able to overcome the structural economic deficiencies in their own countries.

Two articles that have a bearing on this subject that may be of interest to people interested in the subject:

The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida

Can You Survive the Ebay Economy?

Thanks Theo ... These are indeed great resources. I agree that crowdsourcing could be more disruptive than people realize. It could also foster more economic growth than people realize. But I have too much humility to forecast either of those outcomes with anything approaching surety. For instance, has everyone seen the numbers released in a Pali Research report on digital music sales? No one, to my knowledge, was forecasting a plateuing of growth this early in the game.

No need to go to Amazon or any other bookshop to buy Charles Mackay's 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds' - when there it is available for free from Project Gutenberg -

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The Rise of Crowdsourcing

  • Read the original article about crowdsourcing, published in the June, 2006 issue of Wired Magazine.