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Crowdsourcing is Drifting Away From Crowd

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Illustration: http://abya.ru/

‘As you name your ship, so shall she sail,’ they sing in Adventures of Captain Vrungel cartoon.  And Americans say about this, ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him’ (i.e. you’d better hang a dog rather than give him a rotten name).

Regrettably, Professor of Journalism Jeff Howe who became famous for coining the term ‘crowdsourcing’ in 2006 did give the new concept a bad name.  Evidently, Jeff Howe borrowed the word ‘crowd’ from James Surowiecki’s ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ published two years earlier and the word ‘sourcing’, from the then awfully popular term ‘outsourcing.’ The new term quickly became the most fashionable of the buzzwords invented to refer to the latest technologies of the XXI century.  It is the wide popularity of the ‘crowdsourcing’ that accounts for the fact that the word now applies to hundreds of thousands of Web-based collective activities ranging from the tank development to the choosing a new M&M candy color to the developing a graphical model of the enzyme that destroys HIV protein to the creating a technology for the labeling of chips etc.

But there is trouble! The word ‘crowd’ reduces the authors of ideas and participants in collective creative projects to merely a ‘networked crowd.’ But everyone knows that you cannot expect anything good from a crowd.

So, the buzzword has rapidly entered everyone’s lexicon (from schoolchildren’ to presidents’) as a meme implying a progressive social and technological trend.  However, the word ‘crowdsourcing’ lost all meaning within a matter of few years because of inadequate use.  Some people therefore have started to dissociate themselves from the word – like, we do not have any crowd; we have a community of serious people working on serious problems.  In other words, a nice mess has been made of that ‘crowd.’

That is why the derivative terms such as “crowd-project”, “crowd management,” etc. turn out to be a little bit out of place, too.  Indeed, what crowd can work on a project? Why does a crowd need management? The question naturally arises as to what is behind the term ‘crowdsourcing,’ after all.

The scientific community (not journalists, businessmen and amateurs) had all these questions answered back in February 2008 – in a Convergence article entitled ‘Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving. An Introduction and Cases’, Assistant Professor and Consultant Daren С.Brabham wrote the following:

Crowdsourcing is a production model (production method) that allows the collective intelligence of online communities to be mobilized to solve the problems of business, government and society.  A combination of two processes – the upward (bottom-up) open creative process and the downward (top-down) goal-setting process – makes the production model quite unique. In other words, crowdsourcing is NEITHER open source development that lacks the top-down goal-setting, NO marketing study that offers participants a choice of several options.  Crowdsourcing is NOT a successor of the previous (pre-digital) generation of technologies such as open innovation and collaboration with their numerous limitations and flaws.  Brabham showed that the intellectual roots of the ideas underlying crowdsourcing came from absolutely different areas, viz. collective intelligence, market predictions, and distributed computing.

Five years have passed since the above-mentioned article came out. And although ‘crowdsourcing’ is still a term derived from the word ‘crowd,’ this production model does not have anything to do with the crowd.

In his new book “Crowdsourcing” published recently, Daren S. Brabham considers crowdsourcing issues in the light of modern science and recent experience concerning the use of crowdsourcing to solve the problems of business, government and society.  The book analyzes four main types of modern crowdsourcing:

a) information search and knowledge management,
b) search for solutions to practical problems,
c) creating creative communities to work on ideas,
d) distributed solving of intellectual and intuitive tasks in areas where people are more effective than computers.

Having analyzed the general current of affairs in the above-mentioned areas and their prospects, the author comes to the following conclusions:
- crowdsourcing is becoming a new type of professional services for business, instead of a popular fad of enthusiastic amateurs,
- crowdsourcing is steadily growing in importance – as the main tool for involving the public in discussing  the issues related to democracy and solving social problems ranging from education to national security,
- crowdsourcing coupled with the thriving mega-trend of mobility has a chance to dramatically change many aspects of life, as well as many industries,
- crowdsourcing offers excellent career prospects for those who opt for the new professions of online community facilitators and managers.

The new book by Daren S. Brabham clearly demonstrates that modern crowdsourcing has no longer any concern with the crowd, no matter how wise the latter may seem.  Crowdsourcing is now a professional model that leverages the collective intelligence of online communities for the purpose of solving nontrivial tasks.  Perhaps, it would be better to call this model somehow differently, for example, Community Sourcing.  But something tells me that the name is not very good for Russian ears (‘communitysourcing,’ ‘comsorsing,’ ‘Komsorg’ etc.). Time will show whether this term is appropriate. One thing is nevertheless clear: crowdsourcing is ceasing to rely on the crowd.

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Sergey Karelov

Соучредитель и CTO Witology