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Crowdsourcing 101: Episode 2 – Are You Afraid of the Crowds?

Ever wonder about the whether collective intelligence is really all that bright? You’re not alone. While many have embraced Crowdsourcing, the concept is still fraught with controversy and concerns – and with good reason. It’s far easier to fail at a crowdsourcing venture than to succeed at one.

If you peek at the stream of comments following a Youtube video… well, it’s a frightening experience and certainly makes you wonder about how smart the crowds really are. Posts
generally include profanities, and/or comments as astute as “lol hella funny!!! u r cool”. And YouTube, for all its success, has original user-generated content that is, to put it mildly, largely less than engaging.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office can understand that everyone’s contribution is not equal and that meetings where a group is involved can often devolve into utter unproductiveness with inconsequential concerns taking up crucial time. (Meetings I have attended have produced the following useful suggestions: “I would like it if everyone said ‘hello’ to each other when they come into work” and “It’d be great if someone would announce that there are leftover muffins after a meeting”…).

Consensus does not always equal correctness. A commenter, Charles Knight, summed up his concerns about the advice provided on “Yahoo! Answers and MSN’s Live QnA ‘let the world answer’” by stating that people come up with:

how shall I put it, "varied results". Here is a recent question on Yahoo! Answers: "My 4 week old puppy just bit me. Should it be put to sleep?" The result of the "answers" is currently a tie. Poor puppy!

Indeed, you don’t have to look farther than certain trials or elections to be baffled at the decisions crowds make.

Clearly, there are many pitfalls involved with crowdsourcing. This article attempts to address some key issues.

Crowds Don’t Always Think Well…

Context is critical. Often the crowds do not have enough background information or understanding about your industry to make an educated decision. Further, the masses are great at certain tasks but others are bogged down or corrupted when performed by groups. "The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own." “But just like the aphorism that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, crowdsourcing is only as valuable as the resources available, and vulnerable to misdirection.”

It is essential to look at how groups come to solutions to keep in mind how easily the decision-making process can devolve. “One of the biggest problems is that it’s easy for a few members of a group who think the same way–but who may be flat-out wrong–to sway the
opinions of others
. Consensus steadily grows until a majority is reached, at which point even people who have confidence in their dissenting, higher-quality opinion are likely to bow to the group. If you’ve ever wondered how Enron’s managers could have convinced themselves they were running a good company, or how a jury could have found O.J. Simpson innocent, now you know.”

Additionally, groups do not often make a wise decision in a
business context
– often opting for fun or edgy ideas in favor of profitable ones.  Commenting on the relationship between Second Life’s crowd and its company, Linden Labs, Tateru Nino writes, “The most obvious downside is that the crowd simply has its own notions, some of which are crowd wisdom, and some are sheerest groupthink. The crowd of Second Life chooses its own direction, wherever it chooses. Linden Lab, on the other hand, make their decisions based
on the long-term survival and prosperity of Second Life, whether the crowd likes it or not.”

And there are other issues about the quality of feedback: “This is
what the inherent failure of wikipedia is. It’s that there’s a small set of content generators a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs” and “…malicious adolescents, really grumpy people with a lot of time on their hands, and sleazy marketers just love plastering the Internet with their rants, gripes, and plugs.”

Crowdslapping – Loss of Control

When you open your business up to the masses, you are essentially transferring control. In what is being called a classic example of “Crowdslapping", Chevy asked viewers to post ads for their Chevy Tahoe vehicle and received a slew of submissions – some not so
complimentary… “…as the Tahoe example demonstrates, all this comes at a price. Users, not marketers, control the dialog online, and never more so than when they’re invited to contribute their own thoughts.”

Chevy’s saving grace was that it (and its ad agency) understood from the ad’s conception that they had no control over the content produced and accepted that. Chevy’s decision to accept the shift of power was critical and its decision not to take down dissenting consumer creations/ads upped their credibility.


In a critique of using crowdsourcing for design (contests), author Mike McDonald points out “should you choose to go the crowdsourcing route, you should realistically lower your expectations for a great finished product and
acceptable final outcome.” Or as Jeff Howe, who coined the term “Crowdsourcing”, notes “As we’ve begun to see, "good enough" is often good enough, whether that describes a non-profit like the National Health Museum, which doesn’t require high-end stock photography, or a writer who doesn’t need flashy Web design.”


Barry Libert, co-author of WE are Smarter than Me advises us to think “TV Guide” when creating a crowdsourcing site, explaining that if you go to a party that isn’t serving appetizers or beverages, you won’t be staying long.  He states that programming is
essential and that there needs to be engaging material and activity on the site to keep people interested and coming back.

This is precisely the problem that Assignment Zero, an online crowdsourcing journalism site, encountered by not establishing certain aspects prior to the launch. In a Wired piece, Jeff
Howe spoke about why the site was not as successful as many had hoped: “The designers built in numerous topics for contributors to colonize when they arrived. But the AZ team chose to hold off recruiting editors until after the launch, with the result that when contributors signed up, they essentially arrived at a ghost town."


Rob May is emphatic about the “importance of having someone in charge” as projects which lack “leadership” are doomed to fail. May’s insights are based on several forays into crowdsourcing, most critically The Business Experiment (an example of crowdsourcing well illustrated in the book WE Are Smarter than Me). It would be pointless for me to sum up his article here as the entire piece  is essential reading for anyone considering crowdsourcing for their business.

Limited Demographic

By Crowdsourcing, you are not always getting a large range in terms of age, education, or background. Daren C. Brabham in his article (Brabham D.C.(in press). Crowdsourcing as a model for problem solving: An introduction and cases. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), 75-90.) comments:

“We must be careful, too, in assuming that ideas emerging from the crowd in crowdsourcing applications represent an ascendance of the superior idea through democratic process. Many studies on the digital divide indicate the typical web user is likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, English speaking, higher educated, and with high-speed connections. Moreover, the most productive individuals in the crowd are likely to be young in age, certainly under 30 and probably under 25 years of age."
(Lenhart et al., 2004; Lenhart and Madden, 2005)…”

Concerns about Exploitation

Some are concerned that operation such as Istockphoto will result in a loss of business for photographers, and that while some crowdsourcing rewards greatly (e.g. Goldcorp)  many involve very minuscule payments. These are some reasons why the term exploitation has been brought up in relation to Crowdsourcing.

Some of the value/benefits for participants are often non-monetary, a term which is clear from the get go. But this concept is not all that new. As a pseudo-filmmaker some years back, I found that sites such as Atom Films, Underground Film and Trigger Street were platforms providing exposure for filmmakers and compensation (aside from contests) was measured in reputation. A good reputation could be leveraged into future work. This is also the case in the academic world where professors write for academic publications to establish authority and expertise.

Of course, it is important not to exploit the community or expect free feedback or any sort of participation without offering something in return.

“If you think your crowd are willing slave labor, then your efforts will ultimately end in failure (at best) or disaster. Treating the crowd as a free labor force for your profit won’t work. If you try to profit from your crowd, at their expense, you will fail, quite probably miserably.”

Although the concept is new, most counsel that the module should begin encouraging reasonable compensation now as “the size, shape and nature of a building are determined by the foundations you lay for it.

Cambrian House, a Crowdsourcing company, remarks, “Crowdsourcing is not about loving you then leaving you. It’s about making your business practices transparent and the walls of your office porous. It’s about creating ways to engage consumers, listen to them, act on their feedback and reward them with more than a one-time pat on the back. …. After all, crowds are communities. They need to be inspired, engaged, educated, entertained… Members need to see value in their contributions. If they feel “used and abused” they won’t return.”

Jeff Howe predicts that “as the crowd gets wise to the value of their contributions, they’ll begin to want to see some sort of reward that’s commensurate to their contributions. This might not take the form of outright financial payment. It could be a micro-slice of equity. It could be upgraded privileges on the site in question. But soon there may be enough crowdsourcing companies that they’ll have to compete for user-bases. The ones that win in the
inevitable shake-out could well be those that figure out a formula for making their users feel amply compensated

Stay tuned for the next episode, “So You Think You Can Crowdsource?”, to learn what you need to make a crowdsourcing venture work.

Photo credit: Faceparty by RichardAM


  1. Kyle Spector
    Kyle Spector January 10, 2008

    Monica – Great overview of crowdsourcing. It’s something we’ve been tracking for a while at Social Technologies, so I’m glad to see that you were able to use some material from our ChangeWaves blog.

  2. Charlie
    Charlie May 1, 2009

    Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.

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