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Crowdsourcing: Why Now and How

 

Throughout human history, crowds have been an effective catalyst of social change, mobilized by agitating speeches resulting in mass demonstrations, public protests and riots.  Historically, crowds have required physical proximity among those who participate in order to have their effect.  Physical proximity has been essential to both the transmission of ideas (though forms of mass media such as print media and telecommunication have made physical proximity increasingly less important to the sharing of ideas) and the demonstration of the crowd in public. However the Internet and, in particular, social media that operate through its channels have changed this requirement for physical proximity with the introduction of sharing (reblogging, up voting, reposting, liking). Sharing, as its name implies, permits a rapid transmission of ideas as well as the forming of consensus among large groups of people.  By virtue of the ability of platforms of social media such as Facebook to track, instantaneously, the size of the group or crowd demonstrating consensus, it is no longer necessary that people show up to physically present themselves as members of a crowd.  In the wake of political upheavals in the Middle East triggered by the mobilization of large groups of people seeking political change through the Internet, the potential of social media to manifest and mobilized a crowd to effect social and political change is self-evident.

Croudsourcing has emerged from this new virtual social context as a method of harvesting the social value of the crowd for economic rewards.  Crowdsourcing is not a political movement.  It is a way of collecting and applying the knowledge, ideas, instincts, “likes” and dislikes of many people – perhaps millions – to the task of product development. What has prompted this movement and what are the implications of a crowdsourced world? 

 

Social Media, the Platform of Crowdsourcing

The relationship of the number of people participating in a crowd and the influence of that crowd on the powers-that-be is a direct and obvious one: the more people, the bigger the crowd, the bigger the crowd the greater its ability to attract attention and affect change.  Social media has not only made it easier to forge the crowd by disseminating ideas that form the basis of its allegiances but also made it possible to acquire feedback from that group before, during and after its constitution as a crowd. This feedback lies at the heart of crowdsourcing – feedback through Internet media sites allows members of the crowd – individually and collectively – to extract information based on the consensus of the crowd. 

This kind of consensus based information culled from a group has historical precedents. For example, the mid-19th century effort to create a comprehensive dictionary of English words which resulted in what we now know of as the Oxford English Dictionary was built on a model of crowdsourcing.  Volunteer readers were asked to scan books and submit “slips” with words and their context for consideration as entries to the dictionary. Over six million entries were assembled in this manner over a period of 70 years.  This statistic is remarkable for its time, but not impressive from the standpoint of a post web world in which an online resource such as Wikipedia has acquired well over six million entries in 285 different languages in less than a decade.

Crowdsourcing operates as a social medium and it is hard to ignore its progressive social value. There are large numbers of successful crowdsourcing sites such as https://www.airbnb.com/, https://www.couchsurfing.org/, https://www.lyft.me/ in which the primary goal is to fix communal problems.  Each company solves the associated social problem by crowdsourcing like-minded people.  Given the size and diversity of the audience, it is not uncommon to find crowdsourcing used to instigate political or social change on large scale issues rather than small ones. Finding consensus across vast areas of physical space and innumerable political jurisdictions requires that the problems addressed cross those boundaries. Crowdsourcing for political reasons is suitable for campaigns such as the funding of the legal defense of Edward Snowden  (http://mashable.com/2013/07/21/indiegogo-funding-snowden/).  The campaign to oust Toronto Mayor Rob Ford only manifested itself AFTER his use of illegal drugs and foul language was widely broadcast in mainstream news outlets (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rob-ford-crackstarter).  Crowdsourcing operates best when it is used to address large scale issues which bridge geo-political boundaries.

 

The Goal of Crowdsourcing

But political and social ends are not the primary goals of crowdsourcing as it is currently conceived. As coined by Jeff Howe of Wired Magazine in 2006, crowdsourcing means taking, “…a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people.” He also affirms that despite the clear reference to workers whose production has been transferred to the crowd – thus outsourced to the Internet audience – the goal is communitarian rather than capitalist. Crowdsourcing allows the interested audience to present its abilities, capital, knowledge and/or experience and returns a mutual benefit in the form of the products, strategies and greater knowledge it produces.

Current day advocates of crowdsourcing amplify this initial premise of mutual benefit by identifying three primary opportunities it presents. First, crowdsourcing leverages the ability to spread content quickly (viral) and efficiently, giving the average person the ability to have a voice that reaches many and the ability to act upon ones declarations. Second, it provides creative freedom by giving every participant a shot at contributing to the formation of a productive idea. Third, it changes the economic culture by putting the constituents of crowdsourcing into a controlling position with respect to supply and demand.  Crowdsourcing is simultaneously a laboratory for ideas and a marketplace for commodities both of which are controlled by the users.

This ethos of mutual benefit permeates the crowdsourcing culture to the extent that its participants are willing to dedicate their hard-earned money to complete strangers whom they may never see and probably will never meet. For instance, Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/), one of the most trusted crowdsourcing platforms, is not liable for the crowdsourcers who are at liberty to take their backer’s money without any repercussions.  Yet, people still back projects without any insurance, except the crowdsourcer’s word, that their money will procure a reward.

Our commercial culture has changed in other ways as well because of crowdsourcing.  Consider http://www.amazon.com/ a form of crowdsourcing, in which small retailers can access Amazon’s 164 million paying customers, which is slowly taking over the world of retailing (http://business.time.com/2012/07/16/will-amazon-take-over-the-world/).  Crowdsourcing is also turning commercial and venture capital loans into an obsolete practice since the consumer has become the banker, designer, user and participant in the venture.  The currency is beginning to diversify.  One can now give his/her expertise, tools, money, social position, etc.  In fact many of the crowdsourcing companies have changed their form of exchange entirely such as https://www.thunderclap.it/, which is based upon pledging ones social media platform.  On a different note, by taking command of one’s social media identity on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, users are finally in command of how they sell their profiles.  (http://news.discovery.com/tech/gear-and-gadgets/how-facebook-sells-your-personal-information-130124.htm)

Crowdsource advocates believe there are still cultural boundaries that should be broken in order for a simpler crowdsourcing cultural economy to emerge.  These “boundaries” are remnants of our pre-web society.  The most pronounced relic still in use is the US dollar.  The rise of online currency, which has no association with countries or has allegiances to any group/society, should be the new currency of choice.  For instance https://bitcoinstarter.com/ is a platform that only allows pledges to be made in the online currency known as Bitcoin.  Crowdsourcing is based on the concept of ultimate power to the masses/crowd.  Why limit ourselves with outmoded forms of exchange? 

 

Beyond Crowdsourcing

The concept of crowdsourcing is to empower the creatives and eliminate the middlemen.  I hypothesis that this key pillar of crowdsourcing will be the downfall of sites similar to https://www.kickstarter.com/, the famous crowdfunding site.  Even though sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and RocketHub are catalysts for crowdsourcing, they are in fact middlemen.  The only reason one uses Kickstarter.com is to get access to their many followers or hefty web traffic.  Once crowdsourcing becomes common practice, every intermediary profiteer will be cut out of the venture.  For instance http://ignitiondeck.com/id/ is a crowdsourcing platform whose goal is to be as hidden as possible.  The company sells you their code for insertion on the user’s own website.  Middlemen deter creativity and take a percentage of the funding. I can attest to the need to cut out any intermediary person who gains not from the idea but from the success of the venture, no matter what the goal is.  I have had my own experience using Kickstarter in order to crowd fund a project https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/947573931/the-palladium-gun-rubber-band-gun.  Kickstarter made me rewrite my page on their platform two times before they could approve my launch.  The rewrites were enforced in order to protect kickstarter.com from any possible legal or monetary exposure. The changes did nothing to protect my interests.

Crowdsourcing has given the people the ability to interact with important and/or celebrated cultural developments.  By using crowdsourcing the viewer/onlooker has become his/her own designer/investor/participant.  For instance Lego has allowed the Lego community to design and then vote on the next products to be produced.  (http://www.lego.com/en-us/mindstorms/?domainredir=mindstorms.lego.com)

Since crowdsourcing is primarily on the Internet, crowd sourced products are web oriented and lean in the direction of web culture.  For instance the demographics of crowdsourcers are primarily avid web users.  This suggests that average users would be more inclined to fundraise projects that are web based.  https://gambitious.com/ is a crowdfunding platform that provides services to software creators.  Products are only a fraction of what comes out of crowdsourcing.  The largest gain from crowd sourced material is the “probe data.”  This term comes from GPS’s ability to acquire data from information outlets that GPS’ pass on trips.

As envisioned by its proponets, crowdsourcing is not a trend but a small step toward a world of ideas and products which web-users invent and employ.  The ultimate way to validate this hypothesis would be to start a meaningless trend using crowdsourcing (perhaps on https://www.thunderclap.it/).  This would prove that finally the consumer has the same power as cultural icons starting trends such as http://styleblazer.com/185583/10-fashion-trends-kanye-made-started-hip-hop-thinks-started/2/.  Crowdsourcing may in fact spell the demise of the celebrity culture that predominated the world of one-way media outlets such as broadcast TV and radio and which still hold sway.  It anticipates a world in which each and every one of the individuals on a media platform, communicates with one another, shares ideas and ultimately defines the way ideas and products are brought to the market.  We have only just begun to be able to share information quickly and effectively.  The main ingredient of crowd sourcing is the information.  We are able to track and acquire more variations of information every day.  We will not only gain information from more people as the internet becomes more prominent but also from every possible source of information. This new age of crowdsourcing exploration should be coined “info sourcing.”

 

 

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