Blog Post


My friend Tyler sent me the url today for an article in Wired about crowdsourcing, the so-called dark side of the wisdom of mobs, smart mobs, social networking. Take a look at the interview:

According to Wikipedia, "crowdsourcing" is "a neologismfor a business model in which a company or institution takes a jobtraditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) andoutsources it to an undefined, generally large group of people in theform of an open call over the Internet. The work is compensated withlittle or no pay in most cases. However, in a few examples the labor iswell-compensated. In almost every case crowdsourcing relies on amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time to create content, solve problems, or even do corporate R&D."

Wait! Isn't that Web 2.0? Many to many? Collaborative? Contributory? Participatory? Kinda. Except S & P (Subvert and Profit) is (I'm quoting now from their own website) "the crowdsourcing black market. We pay social media websiteusers for their votes, and sell them to advertisers who want to boosttheir exposure on these sites." Who exactly is "we" in that sentence? S&P specializes in subverting social media through "social media optimization." They aren't just consultants who help their clients optimize their sites for Digg, StumbleUpon, and other bookmarking sites. They actually pay (not much, apparently) over "1000 anonymous Internet users" to do undercover marketing in such a way that manipulates the crowd/market/information flows for its own interests." Black-market crowdsourcing isn't so much the wisdom of crowds as the canny exploitation of crowds as unpaid labor for some purpose that serves a corporate interest, often one that is undisclosed. Hmmm. I need to think about this more, but my initial reaction is that it is a bit creepy. Social sites like Digg, of course, have mechanisms for forbidding entry to folks manipulating the network like this, but S & P just keeps reassigning new identities, outfoxing Digg, so the "wisdom of crowds" is actually a cadre of S&P-paid anonymous users manipulating data and presentation in order to generate a crowd reaction and better product placement. Yelling "Fire!" in a crowded network? I'm not sure about all the Ayn Rand pseudonyms either. The libertarian gangstah Web 2.0 rhetoric is Freedom. Or free to exploit? I'm not sure if this is the same thing that Nicholas Carr refers to as "Web 2.0 sharecropping," where some corporation divvies up the workload but not the profits. I'm also not sure of all the possible uses of crowdsourcing of the S&P variety. I need to read more, think about it more. I'd love to hear from others who have opinions on the subject. Let me know what you think about all of this. The interviewer in the Wired interview asks the anonymous S&P interviewee what is one thing that no one knows about S&P and anonymous person responds: "We sometimes pick a random story to be persistent amongusers, so we can pick and choose content that we find interesting topromote to the front page. This means that we are at ease to promoteour own political and other agendas. This is by far one of the most funthings about running Subvert and Profit, and this gives a whole newlayer of meaning to the "subvert" in our name. Do you see a particularpresidential candidate on the front page more than others? Certainlythat is not all our work, but we like to think we played a small partin starting it."

One person's fun can be another's Dirty Tricks. Isn't this the same old trick we've been seeing for the last eight years (at least) but Web 2.0 style? My optimism about the web should reassure me that for every outlaw like this, there will be some other group out there determined to subvert the subverters. But if one group has a lot of funding and the other doesn't, that isn't so clear to me. Maybe there is a continuum from useful to scary forms of crowdsourcing.

In the meantime, here's a list of crowdsourcing examples from the Wikipedia essay. Good? Bad? Neutral? Potentially one or the other? Where does one draw the line? Citizen journalists, citizen photographers: sounds better than sneaky paparazzi, blackmailers, etc etc. Some of the work Luis von Ahn does, for example, counts as crowdsources (esp the very clever use of internet users' having to identify text to enter their security-protected accounts and, in the process, decoding titles on books or words in scanned pages that automatic scanners cannot----that's a remarkable service that costs no individual anything but performs a greater good). Here's the list from Wikipedia of other examples:


  • Procter & Gamble employs more than 9000 scientists and researchers in corporate R&D and still have many problems they cannot solve. They now post these on a website called InnoCentive, offering large cash rewards to more than 90,000 "solvers" who make up this network of backyard scientists. P&G also works with NineSigma, YourEncore and Yet2.
  • YRUHRN used Amazon Mechanical Turk and other means of crowdsourcing to compile content for a book published just 30 days after the project was started.
  • iStockphoto is a website with over 22,000 amateur photographers who upload and distribute stock photographs. Because it is not burdened by the expenses of a professional organization like Getty Images it is able to sell photos for a lower price. It was recently purchased by Getty Images.
  • Cambrian House applies a crowdsourcing model to identify and develop profitable software ideas. Using a simple voting model, they attempt to find sticky software ideas that can be developed using a combination of internal and crowdsourced skills and effort.
  • A Swarm of Angels is a project to utilize a swarm of subscribers (Angels) to help fund, make, contribute, and distribute, a £1 million feature film using the Internet and all digital technologies. It aims to recruit earlier development community members with the right expertise into paid project members, film crew, and production staff.
  • The Goldcorp Challenge is an example of how a traditional company in the mining industry used a crowdsource to identify likely veins of gold on its Red Lake Property. The challenge was won by Fractal Graphics and Taylor-Wall and Associates of Australia by identifying 110 drilling targets, 50% of which were new to the company.
  • Marketocracy, to isolating top stock market investors around the world in head to head competition so they can run real mutual funds around these soon-to-be-discovered investment super-stars.
  • Threadless, an Internet-based clothing retailer that sells t-shirts which have been designed by and rated by its users.
  • Public Insight Journalism, A project at American Public Media to cover the news by tapping the collective and specific intelligence of the public. Gets the newsroom beyond the usual sources, uncovers unexpected expertise, stories and new angles.
  • ESP Game, people collaborating in labelling images.
  • Wired and NewAssignment have launched a "pro-am" collaboration called Assignment Zero that allows citizen journalists to work with professional editors on a story, with the team's research available for re-use.[2]




In any community there will always be someone who will try to exploit the trust that makes the community work to make a buck or feel powerful. The web (and especially "web 2.0") is a human institution, and is not exempt from this, even though many of us tend to think of it in utopian terms because of the richness is exposes us to.

But I have some confidence that on the net abuses like this are more likely to be fought against and eventually defeated than in the offline world. In many ways the net is a power-leveler, and just as some groups can engage large numbers of people at small cost to participate in the abuses, others can marshall large groups to fight against it at similarly small cost, or develop technological approaches to negate the effects of the abusers.

I've found that (on the net, at least) the good guys are just as innovative and energetic and persistent as the bad guys, and the force of moral principle that they feel drives them as strongly as the force of greed or power drives the bad guys. They also just want to continue to preserve and improve the effectiveness of the tools and communities they've built, so will work hard to make sure these are not undermined. Slashdot's karma model is one example of this, Google's ongoing efforts to prevent abuse of its ranking system is another.

In 1993 John Gilmore said "The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it." Similarly, I think the net treats abuse like damage and routes around it. Sometimes it just takes some time to recognize the abuse and develop the routing techniques.


I love this idea. And, yes, every time someone tells me about some horror on the internet, I can always think of three or four more parallel horrors off line. Thanks so much for this comment. I wasn't sure how to react so, instead of my usual polemical blog style, I left all the questions open and my anxieties apparent hoping someone would comment. Your comment is terrific. I love the line you quote from Gilmore, "The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it." Would that that were the case in mainstream news media!