As I noted in a recent post, I believe that we're entering a transition period in which the maturing of crowdsourcing models allows for invigorated critiques into topics ranging from crowd motivations to efficacy to long-term affects on economic growth. A few academics are already developing such appraisals. They're in the early stages, of course, but from what I've read, they're far more rigorous than the "crowdsourcing = slave labor" or "crowdsourcing = Web 2.0 buzzword" blog posts that have thus far passed for a critical review of crowdsourcing. I'd like this blog to serve as an open forum, a place on which a rudimentary, all-access peer review might flourish. The writer of the following post is Daren Carroll Brabham, a graduate teaching fellow and doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah as well as a previous contributor to Crowdsourcing.com. Without further ado, here's Daren on the importance of diversity of opinion in the crowd. —Jeff
I get stuck on this idea that the crowd needs to be diverse to be successful. Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds, certainly thinks "diversity of opinion" is critical to a crowd being wise rather than merely a mob. Jeff Howe, in the June issue of Wired, also writes of wise crowds as needing to be "dispersed" and that the "crowd is full of specialists." This call for diversity in the crowd should probably be broken down into some smaller pieces. "Diversity" is a loaded term and people squabble about it in industry and in the academy. So, I'm putting my ideas out there—welcoming criticism and dialogue in the name of growth—to spell out three different ways of interpreting diversity, and my "take" on how each of these very different varieties of diversity is necessary for a crowd to be wise, and thus for a crowdsourcing application to succeed.
Diversity of identity
According to many scholars who study identity, diversity—in terms of gender, sexuality, race, nationality, economic class, (dis)ability, religion, etc.—is important because each person's unique identity shapes their worldview. Thus, we can assume that differing worldviews might produce differing solutions to a problem, some of which might be superior solutions because the ideas might consider the unique needs of diverse constituencies. For instance, if you're trying to crowdsource the development of a product that can then be mass produced and sold back to the crowd, a diversity of identity in the crowd will presumably produce a product that will have appeal for a diverse range of customers. More than for products and business, though—something I'm constantly pushing—we should think of ways that diversity of identity can benefit our world; intercultural communication scholars, for example, have argued that diversity of identity and the benefits it brings to problem solving can even help foster peace, dialogue, and understanding over conflict.
Diversity of skills
Diversity of skills is a necessary distinction for crowdsourcing applications, too, because, depending on the level of sophistication of a given problem, if the crowd does not possess the basic skills to solve a problem, then there will be fewer good solutions put forth by the crowd. If the problem is to design a clever t-shirt (as is the case with Threadless.com), the crowd must not only possess some degree of artistic creativity, but a critical mass of individuals in the crowd must also own and know how to use illustration software in order to upload t-shirt ideas to the website. If the problem were more sophisticated (developing a crisis logistics plan, for instance), or if the software needed to put forth a solution was difficult to obtain (i.e., too expensive) or difficult to master, or if the skills needed to solve a problem are only available with extensive training or schooling, then a diversity of skills will not exist in the crowd, and the problem will likely not succeed as a crowdsourcing application.
Diversity of political investment
Diversity of political investment is necessary, too. For example, take an environmental sustainability problem posed to the crowd in a crowdsourcing application. If the problem was posted to a website frequented almost entirely by anti-corporate, pro-environment activists, then the chances of getting enough solutions that favored corporations added to the aggregate would be slim. Thus, instead of a sustainable environmental solution that could work for business and for the Earth, the crowd would put forth a solution that businesses would be unlikely to fully embrace. In other words, if you have a crowd whose political stance is not very diverse and you're trying to achieve a solution that will fit multiple political affiliations, you may not get an effective solution.
Under the umbrella of “diversity of opinion” that Surowiecki and others have called for, we have, I argue, diversity of identity, diversity of skills, and diversity of political investment. True diversity of opinion relies on each of these prongs; with one of the prongs missing, the awesome potential of the crowd as a problem solving entity is diminished.
As crowdsourcing applications evolve and new ones launch, diversity of opinion among the crowd will need to be ensured. The question is: How do we ensure it?
Though more and more people are getting connected to the Internet—the place where most crowdsourcing applications reside—there is still a giant gap between those who have the access to the technology and those who do not. The digital divide, as it is called, is perhaps the new identity politic upon which some people will gain privilege and some people will be oppressed. Considering that the digital divide follows race, class, and national lines, the fight for social justice must continue to focus on identity and access to technology.
The acquisition of skills is closely related to technology and educational access as well, which falls along race, class, gender, (dis)ability, and other identity lines. And, lastly, diversity of political investment will only be achieved if people begin to open their minds, think critically, and soften their party line long enough to have productive dialogue.
It’s the same drum beat we’ve seen for years: social justice, democracy, education, and critical dialogue. Crowdsourcing may be a laboratory to improve upon all of these things.