Thursday, April 7, 2011

Crowdsourcing and buzzword lumping

In general, I'm a big supporter of crowdsourcing, but I worry about lumping together too many things under one popular buzzword. A few NYTimes articles have spoken to this issue recently (ht Gloria). This one is pretty starry-eyed. This one unpacks things (a little) more.

Let me push on this idea of lumping. Wikipedia defines crowdsourcing as
the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a "crowd"), through an open call.
As I read that definition, all of these are crowdsourcing:
  • Wikipedia
  • Ideo's open design lab
  • Innocentive's innovation contests
  • 99design's graphic design sweatshop
  • Elections
  • Spam farms
  • Penny stock pump-and-dump marketing
  • Bounty hunters and privateers
Trick question: so is crowdsourcing a good thing or a bad thing?

My position: We're at a place where technology is enabling new institutions. It would be backward to ignore that potential. But there are all kinds of issues with corruption, lack of expertise, bias in who participates, etc. that "crowdsourcing" doesn't solve automatically. Just like other institutions, crowdsourced institutions have to be designed carefully to head off those problems. I don't think it's a magic bullet, but I do think it can help.

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