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Is Everything I Know About Crowdsourcing Wrong?

Is traditional "wisdom" on crowdsourcing missing the point?

Crowdsourcing Visibility Soars
If you haven't heard about Crowdsourcing, you will soon. Crowdsourcing is increasingly in the news, and if you take stock in Google Trends, interest in the topic is increasing at a phenomenal rate.

I wrote an earlier article on this topic entitled  Crowdsourcing - a Best Practice or a Worst Practice?, as well as a follow-on article that was largely contributed by TopCoder, Inc. founder Jack Hughes: Maximizing Crowdsourcing Success.

For those not familiar with the term, Wikipedia's article opens with the following definition:

"sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to an undefined large group of people or community (crowd) through an open call.(FZS)

Jeff Howe established that the concept of crowdsourcing depends essentially on the fact that because it is an open call to an undefined group of people, it gathers those who are most fit to perform tasks, solve complex problems and contribute with the most relevant and fresh ideas. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task (also known as community-based design[1] or "design by democracy" and distributed participatory design), refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm (see human-based computation), or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data (see also citizen science).

The term has become popular with businesses, authors, and journalists as shorthand for the trend of leveraging the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies to achieve business goals."

Then Wikipedia goes on to express (in characteristic Wikipedia style) that there is far from 100% agreement on the Crowdsource front: "However, both the term and its underlying business models have attracted controversy and criticisms."

Is Crowdsourcing the Next “....sourcing” Trend?
I've been around for a while now, and I'm used to technology trends coming and going. In some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I remember the “outsourcing” years where the big trend was to outsource the data center to companies like EDS. Or outsource application development to Andersen Consulting, or “Y2K” to E&Y or a mainframe re-hosting project to some other consulting giant. Same or better quality, less effort, less money. Or so the pitch went.

Then the trend evolved and the big buzz was to outsource everything to India - offshore outsourcing or “offshoring”. Many people jumped onto that bandwagon – proclaiming it as the same quality software at a huge discount. A lot of companies got burned on that one. Others did well.

So is Crowdsourcing simply the next stage in the evolution of this trend of cheaper/faster – after all, it shared the same root word, “sourcing”. So it's not surprising that the assumption is that it must be like offshoring but better. This opinion seems to be pretty commonly held.

Crowdsourcing as an evolution of the "...sourcing" trend?

Recent Crowdsourcing “in the news”
I've been keeping my eye on the Crowdsourcing trend for a couple of years now – keeping tabs on things like:

  • Amazon.com has a “Mechanical Turk” crowdsourcing platform. I use it myself. It's great for repetitive simple to define tasks where you don't want to pay much money. The other week, I wanted to find out how many people had read a lengthy list of articles on the Internet. I paid workers 5 pennies per article to find out for me. According to Amazon, the effective hourly rate was about $1.25 an hour. I suppose you could say that Crowdsourcing and Amazon helped me momentarily operate an Internet-enabled global sweat-shop.
  • The government in the U.K. is Crowdsourcing solutions for reducing government waste and spending. It's a bit like a next generation “suggestion box” on a country-wide level. The pay for that is even less than sweat-shop levels – nothing at all. This made me feel better about my own personal sweat-shop. If the civilized Brits can pay their fellow country-people nothing, then $1.25 an hour that I pay doesn't seem so bad.
  • Companies like TopCoder have been running “algorithm” bake-offs for years, where ultra-smart people write code to solve very focused problems and the winners get a small cash prize, some points and recognition. The non-winners walk away with nothing but “try better next time”.
  • Companies like uTest pay large numbers of widely distributed people small amounts of money to test software or websites for defects/bugs thus allowing companies to “crowdsource” aspects of quality assurance, and pay only when bugs are found.

So it's not at all surprising that the "traditional wisdom" is that  Crowdsourcing is great because:

    1) It's a global thing, so you have instant access to cheap labor
    2) You pay for performance. You only pay for successful work – bugs found, the best algorithms, etc.
    3) You get fast results. TopCoder, for example, advertises over 200,000 developers in their network. With that kind of parallel effort, things should get done in no time at all.

So, to expand on the first graphic, does it look more like this, then?

But Is Traditional Wisdom on Target?
TopCoder, Inc. founder Jack Hughes tells me that I'm missing the point, that I've got it wrong. And to top it off, he doesn't like the term “Crowdsourcing”.

Well, if I've got it all wrong - that would make “me and a lot of other people”.

It's very possible. I was wrong about eBay back in the early 1990s. And I never thought people would pay $5.00 for a cup of coffee. Or $5 for a bottle of water.

I've decided to find out as much as I can. What better place to get to the bottom of things than the 2011 TopCoder Open being held this week in Hollywood, Florida?  It's the biggest concentration of Crowdsourcing participants on the planet.  So I decided to go.  I'm here now at the “Open” to talk to as many people as I can, and decide for myself what Crowdsourcing is all about, and form my own opinion about the moniker “Crowdsourcing”.

I'm sure I'll get an earful. I'll be writing much more about this - more to come this week and next.

More Stories By Hollis Tibbetts

Hollis has established himself as a successful software marketing and technology expert. His various strategy, marketing and technology articles are read nearly 50,000 times a month. He is currently a technology evangelist and director, software technology for Dell Software Group.

Hollis has developed substantial expertise in middleware, SaaS, Cloud, data management and distributed application technologies, with over 20 years experience in marketing, technical, product management, product marketing and business development roles at leading companies in such as Pervasive, Aruna (acquired by Progress Software), Sybase (now SAP), webMethods (now Software AG), M7 Corporation (acquired by BEA/Oracle), OnDisplay (acquired by Vignette) and KIVA Software (acquired by Netscape). He has established himself as an industry expert, having authored a large number of technology white papers, as well as published media articles and book contributions.

Hollis is a regularly featured blogger at ebizQ, a venue focused on enterprise technologies, with over 100,000 subscribers. He is also an author on Social Media Today "The World's Best Thinkers on Social Media", and maintains a blog focused on protecting data: Online Backup News.
He tweets actively as @SoftwareHollis

Additional information is available at HollisTibbetts.com

All opinions expressed in the author's articles are his own personal opinions vs. those of his employer.