Digital Humanitarians and The Theory of Crowd Capital

An iRevolution reader very kindly pointed me to this excellent conceptual study: “The Theory of Crowd Capital”. The authors’ observations and insights resonate with me deeply given my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response. Over two years ago, I published this blog post in which I wrote that, “The value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) exists in the first place.” I was not very familiar with the concept of social capital at the time, but that’s precisely what I was describing. I’ve since written extensively about the very important role that social capital plays in disaster resilience and digital humanitarian response. But I hadn’t taken the obvious next step: “Crowd Capital.”

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John Prpić and Prashant Shukla, the authors of “The Theory of Crowd Capital,” find inspiration in F. A. Hayek, “who in 1945 wrote a seminal work titled: The Use of Knowledge in Society. In this work, Hayek describes dispersed knowledge as:

“The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. […] Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”

“Crowd Capability,” according to John and Prashant, “is what enables an organization to tap this dispersed knowledge from individuals. More formally, they define Crowd Capability as an “organizational level capability that is defined by the structure, content, and process of an organizations engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals—the Crowd.” From their perspective, “it is this engagement of dispersed knowledge through Crowd Capability efforts that endows organizations with data, information, and knowledge previously unavailable to them; and the internal processing of this, in turn, results in the generation of Crowd Capital within the organization.”

In other words, “when an organization defines the structure, content, and processes of its engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals, it has created a Crowd Capability, which in turn, serves to generate Crowd Capital.” And so, the authors contend, a Crowd Capable organization “puts in place the structure, content, and processes to access Hayek’s dispersed knowledge from individuals, each of whom has some informational advantage over the other, and thus forming a Crowd for the organization.” Note that a crowd can “exist inside of an organization, exist external to the organization, or a combination of the latter and the former.”

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The “Structure” component of Crowd Capability connotes “the geographical divisions and functional units within an organization, and the technological means that they employ to engage a Crowd population for the organization.” The structure component of Crowd Capability is always an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. The “Content” of Crowd Capability constitutes “the knowledge, information or data goals that the organization seeks from the population,” while the “Processes” of Crowd Capability are defined as “the internal procedures that the organization will use to organize, filter, and integrate the incoming knowledge, information, and/or data.” The authors observe that in each Crowd Capital case they’ve analyzed , “an organization creates the structure, content, and/or process to engage the knowledge of dispersed individuals through Information Systems.”

Like the other forms of capital, “Crowd Capital requires investments (for example in Crowd Capability), and potentially pays literal or figurative dividends, and hence, is endowed with typical ‘capital-like’ qualities.” But the authors are meticulous when they distinguish Crowd Capital from Intellectual Capital, Human Capital, Social Capital, Political Capital, etc. The main distinguishing factor is that Crowd Capability is strictly an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. “This is not to say that Crowd Capability could not be leveraged to create Social Capital for an organization. It likely could, however, Crowd Capability does not require Social Capital to function.”

That said, I would opine that Crowd Capability can function better thanks to Social Capital. Indeed, Social Capital can influence the “structure”, “content” and “processes” integral to Crowd Capability. And so, while the authors argue that  “Crowd Capital can be accrued without such relationship and network concerns” that are typical to Social Capital, I would counter that the presence of Social Capital certainly does not take away Crowd Capability but quite on the contrary builds greater capability. Otherwise, Crowd Capability is little else than the cultivation of cognitive surplus in which crowd workers can never unite. The Matrix comes to mind. So this is where my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response makes me diverge from the authors’ conceptualization of “Crowd Capital.” Take the Blue Pill to stay in the disenfranchised version of Crowd Capital; or take the Red Pill if you want to build the social capital required to hack the system.

MatrixBluePillRedPill

To be sure, the authors of Crowd Capital Theory point to Google’s ReCaptcha system for book digitization to demonstrate that Crowd Capability does not require a network of relationships for the accrual of Crowd Capital.” While I understand the return on investment to society both in the form of less spam and more digitized books, this mediated information system is authoritarian. One does not have a choice but to comply, unless you’re a hacker, perhaps. This is why I share Jonathan Zittrain’s point about “The future of the Internet and How To Stop It.” Zittrain promotes the notion of a “Generative Technologies,” which he defines as having the ability “to produce unprompted, user-driven change.”

Krisztina Holly makes a related argument in her piece on crowdscaling. “Like crowdsourcing, crowdscaling taps into the energy of people around the world that want to contribute. But while crowdsourcing pulls in ideas and content from outside the organization, crowdscaling grows and scales its impact outward by empowering the success of others.” Crowdscaling is possible when Crowd Capa-bility generates Crowd Capital by the crowd, for the crowd. In contrast, said crowd cannot hack or change a ReCaptcha requirement if they wish to proceed to the page they’re looking for. In The Matrix, Crowd Capital accrues most directly to The Matrix rather than to the human cocoons being farmed for their metrics. In the same vein, Crowd Capital generated by ReCaptcha accrues most directly to Google Inc. In short, ReCaptcha doesn’t even ask the question: “Blue Pill or Red Pill?” So is it only a matter of time until the users that generate the Crowd Capital unite and revolt, as seems to be the case with the lawsuit against CrowdFlower?

I realize that the authors may have intended to take the conversation on Crowd Capital in a different direction. But they do conclude with a number of inter-esting, open-ended questions that suggest various “flavors” of Crowd Capital are possible, and not just the dark one I’ve just described. I for one will absolutely make use of the term Crowd Capital, but will flavor it based on my experience with digital humanitarias, which suggests a different formula: Social Capital + Social Media + Crowdsourcing = Crowd Capital. In short, I choose the Red Pill.

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4 responses to “Digital Humanitarians and The Theory of Crowd Capital

  1. Dear Patrick,

    Its a pleasure for both John and I to find our work being discussed here. Thank you for appreciating, critically examining, and improving it (actually). We never really intended to “disenfranchise” Crowd Capital! We wanted to distinguish it from other form of capital. And, I am speaking offhand here, but we do agree that Social Capital IS in fact a significant positive moderator of Crowd Capital. Its just that we noted that Crowd Capital can exist without it as well. :)

    I enjoyed reading the other articles at your blog.

    Regards from Vancouver,

    -Prashant.

    • Dear Prashant,

      So thrilled to be connected with you! Thanks very much for your kind comment, and many thanks to you and John for writing such a fascinating and thought-provoking piece. I absolutely relished it. The clarity of your thinking and insights are an important contribution to the discourse and really provide readers with an intellectually exciting roadmap to explore. So thanks again, and congratulations on a superb paper.

      With gratitude,
      Patrick

  2. Reblogged this on Phd in Strategic Management and commented:
    Its was a pleasure to find our work being discussed at Patrick Meier’s fantastic blog. I think he has done a great job of critically examining and improving upon our work. As you read the article, just a clarification from my side: We never really intended to “disenfranchise” Crowd Capital in anyway. We are all for it. In our original conceptualization, we wanted to distinguish it from other forms of capital. But I do agree that Social Capital IS in fact a significant positive moderator of Crowd Capital. Its just that we noted that Crowd Capital can exist without it as well. :). Therefore, Social Capital is a moderator rather than a necessary or sufficient condition for Crowd Capital in our original conceptualization. Take a look though, maybe a fascinating discussion is unfolding as of now!

  3. Pingback: Beedie open innovation research ranked tops on SSRN | Beedie School of Business News

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