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The Problem of Crowdsourcing - Part 2 - The Cultural Ecology of Crowdsourcing

Part 2 - The Cultural Ecology of Crowdsourcing

With the advent of crowdsourcing on the web, a movement has emerged with entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians, artists and others making use of its promised ability to amplify human potential by providing easy access to large numbers of individuals with many ideas, diverse talents and broad experience. Crowdsourcing is creating a new context for human enterprise, what we might call a cultural ecology, the environmental system in which we form ideas and direct action.

Among other things, crowdsourcing presents a new way of working, defining a new set of relationships among its participants which differ from the conventional model of employer, laborer and consumer. In crowdsourcing, the laborer and consumer are often the same. One sees this exemplified in crowdsourcing ventures in which the audience is asked to carry out a small, incremental part of a larger project such as searching satellite images for debris from a downed plane or testing a few lines of computer code in a big program. The employer is a rough equivalent of the individual or group that posts a crowdsourcing requests. The audience carrying out the work is both laborer and consumer, participating in the hope of achieving a promised outcome from which they will also benefit. But their role is even less well defined than that. Insofar as the crowd is tasked with decision-making responsibilities – even at a small scale – they have some control over the outcome of the project. Given the scale of many crowdsourcing efforts, that small degree of control is dynamic. Laborers/consumers have the potential to affect the outcome of the project in ways their employers never imagined. By virtue of its “ownership” of the process, the crowd displaces the creative authority of the employer to fully determine the work or its outcome.

The attraction to participate in a crowdsourcing enterprise says much about the character of this creative potential. Individuals are enticed to sign on to a project out of self-interest. They believe that there is some direct and personal benefit. Given the numbers of people who participate in these ventures and the limited potential of any individual to fully grasp the work product of crowd, the benefit can be obscure. To make the rewards more tangible, crowdsourcers turn the work into a game. They offer entertainment as a more tangible reward for participation.  They “gamify the drudgery,” making arduous tasks fun (see Crowdsourcing Social Problems  and Eterna).  Most often, this “fun” is the only material reward participants receive. In this way, the crowdsourcing world has created ways to coax free labor from its audience. 

With entertainment as the most tangible reward for work, the pursuit of fun is what guides the work of the audience.  The ability of crowdsourcers to direct and influence the outcome of a project is largely determined by the degree to which their specific goals are aligned with the audience’s fun-seeking. But, as the saying goes, “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.”  It can be difficult to determine the direction fun-seeking will go. To a large extent, the work effort is determined not by its productive goal but rather by its entertainment potential. The outcome of the crowdsourcing venture is strongly influenced by the need to make every task entertaining. In the ecology of crowdsourcing, fun is the new dynamic of work.


1 comment

I really appreciate your explaining this in terms of laborers and consumers- it really allowed me to understand people's roles and gains in participating in crowdsourcing. And definitely helped me fully appreciate your argument. Your point of crowdsourcing steering projects to being entertaining is definitely true, and I'd also add that contributing to a crowdsourced project is often visible and entangled with social media, and so the aspect of your contributing being of public awareness probably steers things in a certain way as well. Maybe it makes contributors choose to only support projects that they would like to be public . Or maybe it causes the developer of the project to design it in a certain way that would be appealing to 'share', just as you said about it needing to be entertaining.