It’s just a simple fact: There’s power in numbers.
With the Internet and social media revolutionizing our ability to network, it was inevitable we would see what Clay Shirky calls “mass amateurization” that profoundly changes the way things are created and information distributed.
As a professional photographer and writer, I’ve experienced first-hand – and in particularly painful ways – how technology has opened doors for people in general and closed doors for others in particular.
My wallet felt the arrival of istockphoto, the online, royalty free, international micro stock photography agency that originally sold images for as little as a quarter each. When you consider that I’ve sold a single image to a book publisher for as much as $800, you can begin to see why this has photographers running through the streets screaming bloody murder.
The company, which took the power away from photographers and exploited the volume of amateurs shooting with decent DSLRs, was an early example of what’s become known as “crowdsourcing.”
Crowdsourcing is an umbrella term for participatory social media, what Tanja Aitamurto describes in her white paper as a process “where the organization engages in a top-down, managed process to seek a bottom-up, open input by users in an online community.”
The process establishes a framework and then unleashes the potential that comes from individual initiative and original thought within large groups of participants who collectively achieve solutions.
In the case of istockphoto.com, the “problem” was a barrier separating amateur photographers from entry into the marketplace and denying companies access to cheaper images to use in their promotional materials. Professional photographers are, it seems, just casualties of the Internet era. As your mother used to say, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?
Crowdsourcing follows the open source model of co-creation. There is integrative vs. selective crowdsourcing, with the distinction being that the later usually takes the form of a contest or competition.
I don’t see crowdsourcing as a trend so much as an extension of the new normal.
These days, in this wounded economy, it seems as if everyone is on a race to the bottom pricewise. Even Hollywood is in on the game, rejecting the huge budgets for scripted shows in favor of programs that quickly turn our home videos into cheap content for broadcast TV. Expensive actors and production crews sit at home watching ordinary people on their television sets getting smacked in the crotches while feeling as if the same has happened to them.
I find it difficult to separate myself from cynicism about crowdsourcing as a means of getting creative work done on the cheap, but is crowdsourcing just the virtual embodiment of a free market? Is it futile to rage against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas put it? Anyone can throw their hat into the ring, but most participants may lack the proper foundational knowledge to really be competitive anyway. The astronauts used to joke that they were sitting in the finest technology created by the lowest bidder.
I compete with thousands of other people for freelance jobs on websites like Elance that bring the same concept to job boards. Clients hire people to do specialized work such as writing or software design that can be done from anywhere in the world, then they cease to associate with the hired talent once the assignment is completed.
My father’s generation worked for 40 years with one company and then retired. I imagine that by the time I am 65, I will have worked with hundreds of different clients and amassed a wide variety of different skills to keep myself employable. And whereas previous generations could exploit their numbers and unionize as a pool of available labor, companies can now harness the power of the Internet to sprinkle work anywhere on the globe where broadband Internet exists and talent is cheap and appreciative. The robber barons would be envious if they were still alive.
The move toward crowdsourcing has, in this way, flipped the power of numbers on its head, transferring the economic advantage from the workers back to the management and entrepreneurs.
Whether this is “good” or “bad” may depend on where you stand in that food chain. As a consumer buying goods at the store, you probably benefit from cost savings passed along from the company in hopes that you’ll adopt their brand. You may prefer picking and choosing what you actually want to work on instead of clocking in at an office and pretending to look busy performing tasks that bore you for 40 hours a week.
Henry Chesbrough tells us the push for expansive innovation is driven by the rising costs of research and development combined with “shortening product lifecycle.”
In that sense, crowdsourcing can produce a competitive commercial advantage by giving product users input into customization based on customer needs and experiences. This drives down the cost of research and development as a percentage of sales.
Proctor & Gamble’s “connect and develop” strategy is one example of innovation beyond internal research and development.
Crowdsourcing also has value in giving companies low cost ways to test new products or tools among a broad range of experimenters.
A study of crowdsourcing must consider the incentives used to motivate participants to contribute and volunteer their input. Is it more effective to offer a winner-takes-all prize or make rewards contingent upon performance? What offering will propel someone of talent and intelligence to decisive action? Money? The chance to get on the radar of opportunity? A love of a brand and its products? A desire to be a part of a larger cause?
Motivational issues extend to within an organization, where existing staff may resent or feel insecure about external talent reducing their relevance. Then again, it might provide motivation to demonstrate their value within a more diverse network of experts.
Legal issues enter into the picture, as well, when dealing with transference of intellectual property for the purposes of making profit from it. Inventors lose their leverage when they participate in contests, but then such competitions may be the only way to transcend barriers to getting their ideas heard.
You can’t really characterize crowdsourcing as unethical because no one makes us participate against our will. And from their point of view, companies have one hand tied behind their backs if they don’t adopt any means possible to reduce costs and improve efficiency.
Crowdsourcing relies upon collecting those contributions, sorting through them and actually executing on the best of the ideas submitted.
The organization launching a crowdsourcing initiative must find affordable and simple ways to bridge the knowledge gap between insiders and external participants. Impractical ideas are a waste of time, and the goal is to develop strategies that aren’t readily obvious to the marketers, engineers, and designers. The whole purpose of doing it is to utilize experience or knowledge that is beyond the apparent.
The process appears to work best when the concept is simple, the participation is broad and non-experts can add something of value.
It would be a distortion on my part to suggest that crowdsourcing is all bad. Certainly, the Internet enables us to organize in ways that enforce accountability upon powerful governments and organizations.
With keyword tagging and search engine optimization, we can now find needles in informational haystacks in ways that are sure to save lives and connect dots, so to speak.
Crowdsourcing can also be a resource for creative talents by way of “crowd funding” companies that pool money via the Internet to fund the creation of movies, music, video games, etc. The goal usually isn’t to make money with an investment, but rather to parlay something cool and tangible such as personal attention from an attached celebrity.
A Kickstarter project to make a Veronica Mars movie raised $5.7 million from 91,000 fans of the TV show in 30 days. Granted, Kristen Bell is really pretty, but wow… Zach Braff just raised $2 million for a sequel to his indie hit “Garden State.” I must say I’d pitch in $10 to revisit Natalie Portman’s character from that film.
There are more than 450 of these types of organizations, including Kickstarter, Uinvest, StellaBand, RocketHub, CrowdCube, etc. A crowd-funding site called MyFreeImplants even allows young women to solicit money for breast augmentations.
Maybe the jury is still out on crowdsourcing as the new normal. After all, there’s power in numbers.