Is Crowdsourcing Really a Myth?

Dan Woods had an interesting piece in Forbes Magazine last month that labels crowdsourcing as a myth. As Dan puts it, the popular press and millions of people are deluded in thinking that “there is a crowd that solves problem better than individuals.”

Dan writes that…

  • The notion of crowds creating solutions appeals to our desire to believe that working together we can do anything, but in terms of innovation it is just ridiculous.
  • There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. [...] From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.
  • What really happens in crowdsourcing as it is practiced in wide variety of contexts, from Wikipedia to open source to scientific research, is that a problem is broadcast to a large number of people with varying forms of expertise. Then individuals motivated by obsession, competition, money or all three apply their individual talent to creating a solution.
  • What bugs me is that misplaced faith in the crowd is a blow to the image of the heroic inventor. We need to nurture and fund inventors and give them time to explore, play and fail. A false idea of the crowd reduces the motivation for this investment, with the supposition that companies can tap the minds of inventors on the cheap.
  • Whatever term we use, let’s not call it crowdsourcing and pretend that 10,000 average Joes invent better products than Steve Jobs.

Dan certainly makes some valid points. But when Wired journalist Jeff Howe coined the term in 2006, he did so to differentiate the process from “outsourcing”, from whence the term crowdsourcing originates. In his own words, crowdsourcing describes a process when tasks are opened to anyone as a way “to tap the talent of the crowd.”

I looked up the definition of the word talent and sure enough the term can be used to describe both a person and a group. Clearly Dan takes issue with the semantics of the term crowdsourcing since he sees this as misleading and unfair to those who do most of the innovative work.

In context of the Internet, the 1 % rule or the 90-9-1 principle reflects an observation that “more people will lurk in a virtual community than will participate. This term is often used as a euphemism for participation inequality in the context of the Internet.” What is often overlooked, however, is that this 1% figure is one percent of a growing number given the increasing access to the Web around the world. So the 1% figure does constitute a crowd; a self-selected crowd for sure, but a crowd nevertheless.

In terms of innovation, new ideas are not isolated islands of thought. Ideas tend to ricochet off different minds. Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum; there is always context.

Why have have innovation labs otherwise? Why cluster in Silicon Valley?

While I certainly respect individual talent and absolutely believe that individuals should get credit for their work, I feel that Dan’s article is bent on establishing ownership and safeguarding proprietary rights, i.e., control. This stands in contrast to the crowdsourcing approach which has individuals contribute without controlling.

Perhaps elitesourcing is the term that the author would prefer? But as James Surowiecki notes in his best seller, “The Wisdom of the Crowds“:

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.

Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart.

There is also confusion with respect to micro-motives and macro-behavior, or emergent behavior. Swarm intelligence also comes to mind. When we see a flock of birds seemingly “dancing” in the sky as if one entity, this is emergent behavior driven by local synchronization. Does this mean we value the individual birds any less? Of course not. When we say that “it takes a village to raise a child” do we devalue individual parents and family members? Surely not.

We credit the crowd because no one person lives in a vacuum and comes up with innovative ideas that are completely independent from their interaction with the outside world.

Patrick Philippe Meier

12 responses to “Is Crowdsourcing Really a Myth?

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  4. Dan Wood’s article appears to be largely an expression of opinion reflecting a bias toward virtuoso’s.

    Studies on innovation show that those people who are more heavily engaged in social networks have greater creativity and greater innovative output.
    See Ron Burt, University of Chicago, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas”.

    Studies of this nature show that any single idea by an individual are likely to be improved upon when opened up to discussion and feedback.

  5. Alison Campbell

    Karl’s point has huge relevance for communities in the developing where social networking is still real, not virtual, and often involves ‘disagreement and contest’ in traditionally moderated social forums. Innovation in these contexts is becoming increasingly important, if not in the virtuoso sense, at minimum in response to social change – innovation as a factor in building community resilience. Traditional collective decision making in these kinds of contexts still holds a flag up for the importance of the crowd and (patriarchal generalizations aside), can also extend to traditional mechanisms for voices of women, youth etc.

  6. It may be early to take a position on crowdsourcing.

    First, most of what is described as crowdsourcing does not enable collaboration at all, but submissions by more people because the problem is broadcast to more people. These people actually dont get to collaborate.

    When collaboration is added, the results are very different – the Cathedral & Bazaar provides great examples of value creation without the genius, rockstar talent. Some services are bringing this type of collaboration to other processes with interesting results – Jovoto & Kluster, for example. Netflix prize was won by 2 teams joining forces…

    Finally, does Steve Jobs deserve all the credit for the iPhone’s success or should it be shared with the various developers in the App store. Seems like some collaboration too me – smart part was creating the platform to make the possible – maybe the next generation of virtuosos will design these types of platforms to get more from and for everyone.

  7. Patrick, I forgot to mention 2 other points:

    1. I think you are right to associate the issues of desire for one owner and desire for IP control. This is probably the biggest issue for larger organizations – their requirement for clear ownership may make it hard to try more collaborative work.

    2. Eric von Hippel has done some great work showing how customers are great sources of high value ideas. Also, Innocentive has some interesting discussions on where their winning ideas from from – typically not the domain of expertise they expect. So these are two different arguments for including more diversity in the creative process.

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