Home Anty-Climax Just what is crowdsourcing anyway?

Just what is crowdsourcing anyway?


When I first heard the term, crowdsourcing seemed to be just another in a long line of combined words the technology industry just love to smugly smush together because they adore acknowledging their own intelligence.

I might sound bitter. And you would too if your professional life was governed by editors who happily employ bat-wielding goons to work anyone over if caught attempting such invention.

(My effeminate shrieks of “Artistic license!! Artistic license!!” are typically met with a throaty chuckle, a contemplative draw on a jewelled cigarette holder and a dismissively waved instruction to enliven the beating with wallops to the more tender parts of my physical checklist.)

Still, when these new terms come along it’s always intriguing to find out what they mean.

Typically, it’s a concept someone has previously thought of, and perhaps even employed before, then another bright spark opportunistically decides to attach a label and reap the rewards of their precursor’s labour. (I’m not mentioning any names, but when my rough new friends have finished my chastisement I’ll be enquiring if they’d like a quick side job.)

So what is crowdsourcing, then?

It’s talked about so frequently on the Anthill website, I just had to pen this rapidly ageing expose. (Okay, playful analysis.)

Wikipedia and Crowdsourcing

The best example I can think of is Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written by anyone with a care to write for absolutely no money.

With only a handful of volunteer editors keeping track of the submissions and attempting to maintain a measure of quality and accuracy, it’s no wonder the academic community widely derides the use of Wikipedia as a source. (Yet, simultaneously rely on it for the ingredients of Taramasalata when honoured by a visit from the Dean.)

Though the website might not be beloved by those engaged in the consistencies of academic rigour, it is a perfectly adequate leaping-off point for researching such endeavours, as well as any other avenue of information one might imagine.

And it seems to be improving all the time.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales does actually object to the term “crowdsourcing”, but apparently no one listens to him. (He too is governed by ‘the crowd’.)

Essentially, crowdsourcing is a method of problem-solving, where a task is distributed freely over a medium such as the internet. Individuals and/or groups of users strive for solutions under the promise of some reward at the problem’s eventual resolution; kind of a freelance/outsourcing/entrepreneurial conglomerate of effort.

Rewards differ from financial compensation to gifts, to public exposure, to a myriad of other such motivating reinforcers, ranging the full breadth of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (See, Wikipedia works!)

Crowdsourcing is not a new concept.

A good historical example is the Longitudinal Prize offered by the British Government in 1714, which was a 20,000 pound competition (essentially) to construct the most efficient method of determining a ship’s longitude at sea.

In order to judge one’s longitude, one had to know, as accurately as possible, the time back home at Greenwich in England.

Until that point determining longitude had been, pretty much, a hazardous game of “guess where we are now?” typically immediately before helplessly foundering on a sandbank or smashing into a hidden crop of deadly rocks.

There were several somewhat effective notions proposed, but the one that emerged at the forefront was the development of a decent clock. Not just any old clock, mind; but one that could cope with the buffeting it would be subjected to aboard a moving ship without its accuracy being affected.

Not an easy task in the age of the pendulum.

Such a clock was eventually developed by a Yorkshire carpenter called John Harrison that met all the requirements of the brief. However, for some reason (probably cost; such clocks were prohibitively expensive) lunar distance (sextant reading the angle between the Moon and some other planetary body to determine the time at Greenwich) continued to be used until fairly deep into the 19th century.

The Benefits of Crowdsourcing

The benefits of crowdsourcing are fairly obvious.

The agency proposing the event is often exposed to a wide variety of solutions which it don’t necessarily have to pay for.

As for the crowd members:

  • Working within a group is psychologically benefiting, as we’re evolutionarily conditioned to collaborate.
  • Internet anonymity allows greater exposure to ideas, as face-to-face collaboration often inhibits the personal creative process.

Crowdsourcing is not without its detractors, however.

Often cited problems are:

  • Some businesses, who perhaps haven’t injected enough exactitude into their job description, get burned on the back end by crowdsourced workers achieving the brief requirements via methods deemed undesirable to the client; a situation potentially ripe for costly lawsuits.
  • The lack of effective, binding terms or contracts can lead to a maze of legal mumbo-jumbo that can also add to the cost, time and effort required.
  • Potential language barriers with foreign crowdsourced workers.
  • Large scale projects can explode way beyond expectation and lead to severe management difficulties, as well as maintaining working relationships with crowdsourced workers.
  • Crowdsourcing potentially allows malicious agencies access to sensitive materials.

The naming of crowdsourcing

While crowdsourcing is by no means a new phenomenon, it took until 2006 for Wired magazine’s Jeff Howe to pin a name to it. It allows a marketplace where the amateur can compete with the professional. This is probably, overall, a good thing, because I believe the word “professional” is often applied a little too liberally. (Like Taramasalata on a Dean’s water-cracker.)

Stefan Abrutat is an award-winning freelance writer, blogger and editor in a wide variety of fields, from sports to science, the philosophy of science, humourism, history, travel and food. Image by James Cridland