About Me

Crowdsourcing: A Definition

  • I like to use two definitions for crowdsourcing:

    The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

    The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

The Rise of Crowdsourcing

  • Read the original article about crowdsourcing, published in the June, 2006 issue of Wired Magazine.
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« Chapter 6: The Most Universal Quality—Why Diversity Trumps Ability, Cont. | Main | Chapter 7-What the Crowd Knows: Collective Intelligence in Action, Cont. »

May 16, 2008


Alf Rehn

The interesting question that all this evokes is "Does crowdsourcing scale?" You argue well for the fact that by spreading out a problem and incentivizing, one can get interesting new answers. But does it scale. Yes, in the case of Linux coding it clearly did so, and the crowd organized itself in interesting ways. But in most of the examples that one puts forward, it is the case of either single designs or single inventions, often then improved by a more traditional R&D-unit. When one guesses that the problem of cancer could be solved through crowdsourcing, one ignores much of the tricky combinatorics that lies behind more complicated systemic innovations. Yes, with enough people behind it, we might be able to map genomic sequences over and over again until we hit upon something, but can all this be automated? Is there no need for a more centralized oversight?

When my laptop runs the SETI@home, it just means that I lend a few cycles, dumb cycles, and that these will be filtered by an algorithm created by the people behind SETI@home, and if I by chance come upon something, the people from S@h will look at it and decide if they've found something. In a sense this would be a very "pure" utilization of resources, effectively doing something with a resource that otherwise would lie fallow.

The logic of crowdsourcing says something similar, but forgets one thing. Those who do not succeed to see their work prominently displayed will, unlike my laptop, care about the fact that they've spent time that didn't really help anyone (least of all themselves).

Scaling crowdsourcing would somehow be able to muster both the greater systemic logic to oversee a project, and at the same time be able to overcome the problem of what happens to the underutilized (and not necessarily replicating) resources. As an example, just look at the number of open source projects that either fail or never get off the ground at all. Yes, I know the counter-argument is that there are enough "cycles" to go around, but I have yet to see any solid evidence for this...

A thorny one, that.

alan booker

Great read Jeff!
More quibbles.

“The current R&D model is broken.” P&G is one of InnoCentive’s earliest and best customers, but the company works with other crowdsourcing networks as well.”

I wouldn’t have abbreviated Procter & Gamble immediately following R&D.

“Not every quick and curious intellect can land a plum research post at a university or privately funded lab. Some must make HVAC systems.”

Why did you choose HVAC systems as the lowest common denominator against a plum research post at a university or privately funded lab?

“Fortune 500 companies, then maybe MATLAB’s Ned Gulley isn’t off base in suggesting that the collective brain might one day cure cancer.”

Calling it a collective brain Jeff is just spin That is quite a stretch from Collective Intelligence
“But they dovetail neatly with decades of research in economic sociology, echoing a principle sociologists call “the strength of weak ties.”

Very interesting concept, the fact that it is important to recognize the difference between a nod tie, weak tie and an absent one gives it some context Jeff.

Cheers, Alan

Jeff Howe

Just a quick note to future commenters: Alan's approach here is spot on, in that he quotes the relevant passage he's responding to, then writes his comment below. The idea is to create end-note symbols that will correspond to the appropriate parts of the appendix. If you reply generally to the excerpt, it makes this task more difficult (though not impossible.) Make sense?

Mike Ho

First, thanks for sharing all this on your blog! I'll start with a tiny copy-editing quibble. In this passage:

“I read that and thought, ‘Huh. Kind of like open source. Someone poses a problem and all sorts of random, strange people show up and say I’ve got an answer for you, and it’s never the one you’d anticipate.”

You need an end-quote for the thought beginning with 'Huh.'

Now for the deeper thought:

"The longitude prize constitutes the earliest known example of crowdcasting—broadcasting a problem to the widest possible audience in the blind hope that someone, somewhere—maybe even a Yorkshire cabinetmaker—will come up with a solution."

I got here through a little crowdcasting of your own -- I saw a post on Tish Grier's blog indicating you needed a little more involvement in this blog. That suggests to me that crowdsourcing *can* scale, but that it takes a lot of work to make it do so. It sounds like you'd like the editing process of your book on crowdsourcing to be crowdsourced itself -- a laudable goal -- but it's not as easy as it sounds, is it? Good crowdsourcing needs to achieve critical mass somehow, through word-of-mouth (word-of-blog?) or some other mechanism. In short, good old-fashioned publicity. And so in its own way, the new is old.

This is just my random riff on a quick read of this chapter. I may have more to say after I read more of the book. I just got here, so please forgive me if other commenters have already said much the same thing.


This is just my random riff on a quick read of this chapter. I may have more to say after I read more of the book. I just got here, so please forgive me if other commenters have already said much the same thing.


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