2 reasons why the term "crowdsourcing" bugs me | Opensource.com

2 reasons why the term "crowdsourcing" bugs me

Posted 26 Jan 2010 by 

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Interesting article in Forbes about the way Threadless, the awesome t-shirt company, thinks about community-building. For those of you who aren't familiar with Threadless, they do about $30 million in revenues with a unique cultural/business model that merges a community of t-shirt creators and consumers into one happy family (you can read more about them in the Forbes article).

This quote from Cam Balzer, the Threadless VP of Marketing, in particular, caught my eye:

"Crowdsourcing is antithetical to what we're doing. That's because crowdsourcing involves random sets of people who suddenly have a say in how the business works, but that's not how Threadless operates. We've got a close-knit group of loyal customers and have worked hard to build that. The people who submit ideas to us, vote and buy our products aren't random people, and they aren't producing random work. We work closely with our consumers and give them a place on our site, the Threadless forum, where they can exchange ideas with one another--ideas that go beyond designing T-shirts. We have consumers who have voted on 150,000 designs, which means they've spent hours interacting on our site. People who do that aren't jumping into a random crowd. They're part of the community we've cultivated."

This really hit the nail on the head for me. I often see the word crowdsourcing being used in the same sentence with open source or community building. But the word crowdsourcing doesn't describe the type of community I like to be involved in. Here's why:

1. "Crowdsourcing" imposes a manufacturing mindset rather than a community or social mindset.

Often when I hear companies talking about how they are going to "crowdsource" a product, I feel like crowdsourcing is the answer to the question "How could I make this faster/cheaper/better?"

Great communities are not factories. They are social creations. Their power source is emotion and passion.

I think you can build community crowdsourcing factories, filled with people working as machines-- many folks have been successful with this model. But the power source that drives contributors in this model is probably going to be money (maybe recognition-- or the hope of recognition, more likely). Which means contributors will be loyal to whomever offers the next paycheck, not to a big dream or mission.

Crowdsourcing factories will attract mercenaries and nomads, not believers and members.

Don't get me wrong, I love the concept of user-driven or community-driven innovation (I have spent 10 years of my life working inside an open source company after all). I just dislike the thought of communities that are factories first.

Great communities are mission and beliefs first. And if those beliefs create an efficient factory as a side effect, as has happened in the open source movement, all the better.

2. "Crowdsourcing" abstracts, maybe even insults, the role of the individual creator.

Great communities are often meritocracies, where the best ideas win. Over the years, some folks have erroneously compared the open source movement to socialism. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Open source is not about people becoming part of a collective and creating a collective good for the sake of all. It is about people with selfish interests finding others with similar selfish interests and realizing they could get more work done more quickly by working together.

The "crowd" part of the word crowdsourcing makes me think that crowdsourcing advocates view the community as a Borg-for-hire. A hive-like organism with one collective brain. It puts the person or company that wants a "crowd" to "source" something in charge.

In a meritocracy, individuals-- collaborating on a common cause-- are in charge. If all people remember from a crowdsourced project is the idea, and the person or group of people who collaborated to create that idea are forgotten, I think this is a shame.

In a meritocracy, power should be held by the people who have shown that they tend to have the best ideas over time. We need to make sure that the individual heroes don't get lost in the crowdsourcing Borg.

Maybe it is all just semantics, I don't know. What do you think? Does the term crowdsourcing bother you too?

This article originally appeared on Dark Matter Matters.

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11 Comments

Tony ODriscoll
Newbie

Chris,

I really liked your points here. In our work here at the Center for IT and Media at Fuqua, as we studied the Fedora community, the two points you made here ring true.

In classic terms of power structures in organizations, in an open source model the power moves from Position, Coercive and Reward sources to Knowledge and Referent. Who and what you know becomes much more important that where you sit. And yet, at the core of these communities, as was described with Threadless, there reside a set of individuals who have the earned strong reputational capital within the community for their contribution and/or creativity.

Yes there will always be someone on the periphery who can contribute their insights or knowledge via a piece of code or a good piece of marketing artwork, but without that core built on emotion and passion there is no center of gravity around which the work endeavor can coalesce.

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jeremy
Newbie

What Threadless does is much more along the lines of a what I call a "curated consensus", anyone can submit, but their submission is vetted and editorialized.

Not too much different than a facilitated brainstorming session, just distributed and time-shifted: "crowdstorming."

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ncourtney

The hive mind set is something that has been around for a long time. They've just given it a new politically correct name.

The Hive Mind: Rebirth or the End of Humanity?

With knowledge no longer encapsulated in individuals, the distinction between individuals and the entirety of humanity would blur. We would perhaps become more of a hive mind - an enormous, single, intelligent entity.

Excerpted from - Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (pre-publication on-line version), June 2002, U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Commerce, pp. 164, 165.

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mdgreaney

While to an extent it IS semantics, I think the term crowdsourcing is one of those unfortunate words conjured by business-centric minds to control the concept and put it to use as a tool.
However, these 'crowds' aren't tools. In the original places that crowdsourcing was seen, even if not know by that name at first (Wikipedia), the crowds were not random either: they were self-selecting.
Unfortunately it may be that the term has been taken and tamed by those who want all the productivity benefits but none of the reciprocity, the (non-monetary) rewards which bring in the crowds in the first place. Sometimes I worry that the term 'open source' is at risk from this, but that's never quite become the case.
So threadless IS sourced from a crowd, but might not be 'crowdsourced'!

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cgrams
Open Source Champion

i love your last line: "threadless IS sourced from a crowd, but might not be 'crowdsourced'"-- that captures things very well!

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Don Babcock

Chris, I liked what you had to say. To be honest, this was my first exposure to the term "crowd sourcing" but the set-up you gave the discussion resonated, particularly the part about meritocracy and losing sight of those that demonstrate merit. You might want to check out "The Abolition of Man" by C.S. Lewis, a remarkable author from the last century. In it, I think you'd find some interesting parallel themes. In particular, he points out that the modern emphasis on democracy (equal outcomes) is the antithesis of creativity and genius. Indeed, in totalitarian spaces, the former actively tries to eliminate the latter. We "dumb down" our schools so "Johnny can't fail" and eschew the celebration of genius lest it offend the masses. So yes, to answer your question, the term "crowd sourcing" is bothersome because to a discriminating nose it has the not-so-faint aroma of the kind of dehumanizing liberalism that is in vogue in some quarters. There, the mandate is for mediocrity.

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cgrams
Open Source Champion

thanks for the C.S. Lewis tip! I've also found getting caught up on Ayn Rand is thought provoking along these same lines... wrote a blog post about that a while back you might dig:

http://darkmattermatters.com/2009/07/06/what-would-ayn-rand-think-of-ope...

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Natanael L

... is still a nice way to explain the idea of free and open source software to business people.

And here's a thing I don't agree with (or possible misunderstood):

"2. "Crowdsourcing" abstracts, maybe even insults, the role of the individual creator."
Somewhat. but I'm not bothered by it.

"Great communities are often meritocracies, where the best ideas win. "
+1

"Over the years, some folks have erroneously compared the open source movement to socialism. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong."
It's not really the same thing, I agree.

"Open source is not about people becoming part of a collective and creating a collective good for the sake of all. It is about people with selfish interests finding others with similar selfish interests and realizing they could get more work done more quickly by working together."
Open source isn't - but free software is. There's a huge difference, and too few people understand /know it.

"The "crowd" part of the word crowdsourcing makes me think that crowdsourcing advocates view the community as a Borg-for-hire. A hive-like organism with one collective brain. It puts the person or company that wants a "crowd" to "source" something in charge.""
As I said first - I'm not really bothered by this, and doesn't get the same picture in my head as you.
At least as long as you include a description and say "the community is important, care about it".

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DavidSpalding
Open Minded

I think mdgreaney is correct, "Crowdsourcing" is not a new version or variation of open source, but a co-opted (or soon to be) business buzzword to refer to getting anonymous buy-in and pseudo-collaboration. Ironic, maybe, that I first heard the term from a Marketplace reporter.

If crowdsourcing is the new vision of what most successful social network sites are doing, I want none of it. The "promise" of social networking (e.g. MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn), supposedly a new century update of the very real communities that arose on CompuServe [edit] and The Well, has turned out to be just a new form of marketing. Ads and scams abound. Marketers cheer that social networks provide an avenue for companies to address consumers on a personal level, but I suspect all it will do is create a new impersonal advertising billboard slapped over a medium that used to be somewhat intimate.

Crowdsourcing seems to be on the same wavelength. If crowdsourcing needs a big, homogenous group of consumers/contributors, it may not accommodate eccentrics, mavens, seers, grumps, and other individual types that are needed in any real open collaboration environment. It's messy to collaborate with the eccentrics, but by golly a better result comes from that "loyal opposition." When a cabal "crowdsources" for input, that minimum level of control probably filters out the outspoken members -- after all, you're looking for a "crowd," not a congregation of individuals.

You're right, Chris - it may only be semantics.

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Matt X

Where is that image from and who is it by? It seems like you're violating the creative commons license on that image...

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jhibbets
Open Sourcerer

Matt,

Thanks for the comment. A designer from the opensource.com team designed the crowdsourcing image. If you've seen it somewhere else, perhaps the use originated from opensource.com? Does this address you concern?

Thanks,
Jason

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