Is Crowsourcing Just The New Stone Soup?

On Tuesday morning, Ray Wang (@rwang0) from the Constellation Research Group posted in Twitter:

Hoping someone will write a post titled, “Is Crowsourcing Just The New Stone Soup?

I first became interested on the subject in the early 90’s in the beginnings of the “Open Source” movement. I got very involved in community development later and, for a couple of years, the maintainer of the official production Linux kernel was a member of my team. How can a young developer single-handedly merge contributions of tens of thousands of people scattered around the world using only basic Internet collaboration tools? I still don’t understand that.

It was natural for Internet software developers to be the first community to leverage the Internet medium to show that a large number of people without central coordination, direct financial compensation, or structured organizational support can tackle very complex problems and reach results that are, if not better, at least comparable to professional organizations.

Since then, many examples beyond GNU/Linux flourished and gained broad commercial application. First in the software domain (databases, web servers, etc), then in media (Wikipedia, News, etc), and we see it now spreading into other areas.

The term “crowdsourcing”was first coined (according to Wikipedia) by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired magazine article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”. I credit the earlier book “The Wisdom of the Crowds” (2004) by James Surowiecki with the expression of the concept.

The general argument is that, once we have the team collaboration technologies capable of aggregating the collective intelligence of a large group of people, we no longer need to depend on “experts” that dedicate a lifetime to accumulate knowledge about a very narrow domain of knowledge to resolve complex problems.

So is Crowdsourcing applicable to any of the problems we want to solve?

The short answer is no. Don’t assume that just any problem can be solved by unstructured communities. In fact, with our current technology and ability to collaborate, only a small number of very specific problems can be successfully crowdsourced.

For Crowdsourcing to work you need:

  • Critical Mass – The knowledge of an expert cannot match the aggregation of knowledge of a crowd of 100,000 people. But it can easily beat a crowd of 10. So if you have 10 customers, don’t expect a customer forum to be able to design your future products without the coordination of a product manager and expert designers. If you are looking for the solution to a horizontal problem that affects a large number of people (e.g. designing a good operating system or database), then it may be a viable alternative.
  • Emotional Engagement. In the absence of direct financial incentives, the participants in a crowdsourcing effort will need something that let them overcome the imperfections of communication tools and the friction of collaboration. Having a common cause, or enemy, or ideology, or pursuit of glory, or artistic expression is an important factor in crowdsourcing initiatives.

One thought on “Is Crowsourcing Just The New Stone Soup?

  1. Marcio,

    As usual, an astutely framed post. Crowdsourcing is not a panacea. I recently heard the term “community sourcing” which may be more relevant, since it implies a common bond among the participants.

    I think a third factor is leadership. In the case of Linux, there was strong leadership in collaboration/moderation/curating of code lines, bugs and version control. I think in most successful crowdsourcing efforts you will find a “guiding hand” which focuses and extracts value.

    I think, in some respects, it’s related to the transmedia production techniques currently being employed in the entertainment world, and espoused by leaders like Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment. As an intellectual property is realized across multiple media platforms — in essence, crowdsourced — it requires a centralized vision to maintain consistency and give value to the whole.


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