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The Problem of Crowdsourcing - Part 3 - An Internet Hierarchy Is Formed Through Crowdsourcing

The Problem of Crowdsourcing - Part 3 - An Internet Hierarchy Is Formed Through Crowdsourcing

Part 3 - An Internet Hierarchy Is Formed Through Crowdsourcing

    Despite the blurring of the lines that separate the responsibilities of an audience from the sponsor of a crowdsourcing project, the social hierarchy is specific and fixed. Time, money and social prestige play important roles in determining who can launch crowdsourcing ventures and what the topics of those efforts will be.  This can be seen on Crowdswell, a site that allows people to upload problems they would like fixed such as graffiti.  Projects are “selected” by the audience which contributes money to the project and whose numbers provide attention.  But there is a threshold to entry. The website only allows crowdsourcers to collect the donated revenue after they achieve a level of success with the crowd. This requires an investment of time and money to “seed” the project. Those without either have no access to the crowd or its promise of dramatic returns on investment.

    Despite public perception that the internet provides equal access, the positions of power in the virtual world are clearly defined and affirmed through the medium of crowdsourcing.  For instance Klout gives users the opportunity to assess their internet presence and influence based on a numerical scale.  If you have more web influence such as an active Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin account with lots of followers and friends, you have more of a “Klout.”  Your Klout score is both a reflection of one’s influence and a means of leveraging that presence to achieve more influence.  A Klout Perks Program provides monetary rewards to users with high Klout scores. Since Klout celebrates its high achieving users by publicizing their success in achieving notoriety among the crowd, the monetary perk is a small reward in relation to the further expansion of a person’s web influence. In gamifying Klout, its promoters have applied crowdsourcing tools – using the crowd and its appetites to determine influence – to the task of defining and affirming web-based social status.  Since that status depends on an individual’s presence and participation in on-line activities, it is imperative to stay active in order to sustain a high profile. For those in the game, it is increasingly difficult to disconnect without suffering the severe consequences of losing the attention of the crowd.

    The consequence of a loss of presence or web clout can be significant and material. An example is given by Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer virtual currency system in which no authority controls the flow of money.  The value of bitcoinage is based on the level of participation. Crowdsourcing is, once again, the vehicle by which the technology of the internet is leveraged to create value. For the single user, wealth in bitcoins is a matter of collecting the virtual currency by mining them or trading with other players. An individual can assemble a group or pool to mine and trade more efficiently.  For instance Bitcoin Pooled Mining is a website in which you can join a pool.  Since the pool needs an operator who creates an online chain of command, Bitcoin inspires the creation of social hierarchy.  The operator has the potential for a lot of control over the method by which Bitcoins are mined and then over the Bitcoins themselves.  Operating without regulation and under the pretense that there was no real value in bitcoinage, a wild-west “free market” has emerged in which groups of people working in the Bitcoin “mines” are exploited by individuals who have amassed huge fortunes in virtual currency.

    Another example is Amazon Mechanical Turk.  This is a site on which people are paid to perform menial tasks for which they are paid as little as $1.45 an hour.   The users are given mundane tasks such as writing a description for a store or distributing/sharing jobs that are currently impossible or too costly to accomplish with a computer.  Many people participate since it is a simple and quick way to make pocket change.  Some participate because there is very little demand on performance other than having access to a computer and the internet. Others use it because they consider it fun.  No matter the reason, the site facilitates access to human labor at ridiculously low cost and with virtually no expenditure of capital to support an infrastructure of the workplace. 



This is a great inventory - and I'm glad you touched on Klout, I think the site's practices demand far more attention than they usual seem to garner. I'm interested in adding to the examples you've already mentioned. For example, with crowdsourced funding sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the bar for entry also becomes high, in that projects typically become popular only when they have a well produced (and usually well funded) promotional video. Can I make a kickstarter to raise money to produce my kickstarter video?

I find it amazing that people still swear by the fact that the internet is a democratic space with equal opportunities for all (because, you know, you could be a dog for all we know). When I try to complicate this idea, people often use crowdsourcing as an example of democratic mass participation, yet, as you point out in your post, these services only operate within an alredy established hierarchy. Access to and within crowdsourcing is not flat, just as access to and within the internet as a whole is not flat. Perhaps this relates back to our discussion of "IRL" and the distinction that is implicitly created between our virtual and "real" lives. If we view our "virtual lives" as separate from our "real lives," we will probably forget that the priviledges we hold in the "real world" do indeed translate into the "virtual world." Troubling the distinction between real/virtual could perhaps help to make people more aware of the hierarchies created naturally within crowdsourcing.



I quite like the trio of examples you’ve pulled for this blog post. I think you have a nice representation of the spectrum of contemporary crowdsourcing here. Klout as a proper crowdsourcing platform is something I never really thought about, but now it seems obvious. All three services you mentioned deal with rather conventional exchanges of different capital enabled by the dispersion of the network. For example, the exchange of labor or goods or money or services. Yet Klout brings a new factor to e-commerce: social capital. It’s hard to believe a price can be placed on retweets and followers. I wonder how social capital will mature and if it will solidify as a convention of future exchanges. 

In any case, one thing I found interesting that is perhaps reflected by the three examples in this post: there is a negative correlation between the reign of the algorithm governing the service and the intensity or depth of the hierarchy that you have identified as symptomatic of Klout, Bitcoin, and Mechanical Turk. What I mean is, the less “algorithmy” the service is, the more strict the hierarchy created by it tends to be. For example, Bitcoin, by its decentralized nature, is inherently multilateral despite its algorithmic basis. The governing body of the Bitcoin is a proof-of-work algorithm which prevents coin replication and ensures the validity of transfers without the need for a third party. The inclusion of a third party would create a hierarchy, but Bitcoin’s status as self-governing protects against this. It takes the inclusion of another structure, namely the mining website, to create a hierarchy. The mining website is a separate service from Bitcoin; The crypto currency would exist with or without the pools of miners. Klout, on the other hand, has a less strict algorithm. It’s not as “algorithmy” because it doesn’t depend on sets of computationally hard math riddles; Klout’s governing algorithm has many variables and hinges on  individuals’ interactions with a particular persona or handle. Yet Klout, when compared with Bitcoin as a bare technology, has a more strictly defined hierarchy. Obviously this is part of the mission statement of the company; the ranking of users based on their social media influence necessarily creates a hierarchical system of users. It is interesting to note that the ability of the service to provide seemingly accurate rankings of influence can in part be attributed to the arbitrariness of the algorithm. In the third case, Mechanical Turk is seemingly devoid of algorithmic governance. The utility of the platform derives from the fact that its function is based on the queries and output of real people. However, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk provides the clearest example of a platform predicated on a master-slave relationship. Given this, I would venture to say that the hierarchies borne from these technologies have less to do with the services they offer and more to do with the interactions they facilitate between users.


I enjoyed your post and appreciated its relevance specifically to our generation, which will turn more and more to crowdfunding as we navigate the job world in the coming years if crowdfunding platforms maintain their visibility and use. The issue of crowdfunding as only accessible to a priveleged group of people has always made me uncomfortable without ever being able to put that feeling into words. I am curious to know who is using sites like Crowdswell in terms of age, race, and income, to learn a bit about whether the barriers to access exclude the same marginalized communities in other aspects of life. Your post also made me curious about the position of Crowdswell as emerging out of problems rather than ideas and whether the same access issues exist on sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe.

I had not heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk and so I was surprised when I visited the website after reading your post. I can't tell if the homepage is just overselling the site or if they're actually trying to veil their exploitation and and fool people into thinking they're a valid business/organization/whatever they are. I also find it very telling that both crowdfunding platforms and those that exploit digital labor can fall into the same category of crowdsourcing when in reality, one group of people can participate with a click and a few dollars while the other must put in labor.

Again, great post, so thank you for sharing your thoughts.