The Power of Crowdsourcing

By Jason Poggioli

Have you ever asked a friend a question because you thought he might know the answer? Ever ask a group of friends? How about asking a million people? That’s what the Internet is enabling people to do and in the process is transforming how we share knowledge and solve problems in the 21st century.

It’s called crowdsourcing and it refers to the idea of turning whatever question or problem you may have over to millions of people around the world to let them resolve it. The website wikipedia.org is probably the most well known example of crowdsourcing. The notion that allowing just anyone to contribute to an online encyclopedia, and its resulting in a reasonably accurate compendium of knowledge seems strange and counterintuitive to most.

Here’s how it works: A web site is put together to provide the infrastructure and formatting guidelines to allow the general public to log in and contribute reference articles on pretty much any topic. Maybe you’re a high school teacher with an above average knowledge of American history and would like to write something on the causes of the War of 1812. Of course, anyone can edit any article, or create whole new ones that anyone else could edit. Go ahead and try it. It’s completely open to anyone willing to contribute.

Typically, the immediate reaction is skepticism since such information is so clearly susceptible to vandalism. However, the formula cuts both ways. As easy as it is for one person to vandalize, it is equally easy for the vandalism to be wiped clean. And there are many, many more people cleaning up than people messing up. All edits are kept and there are armies of volunteers who can reverse a change with the click of a mouse. Vandals quickly get bored and move on. Errors of a more subtle nature can take longer to correct. For example, if the history teacher inadvertently documents an incorrect fact it may not be immediately noticeable, but ultimately crowdsourcing wins out because other contributors are constantly reviewing and checking for references on all work. It’s peer review on steroids.

Wikipedia is merely one expression of the mind-boggling phenomenon of crowdsourcing. When the Internet enabled millions to effortlessly communicate with one another it tapped into what could be called the “cognitive surplus” of the human race. Modern society leaves all of us naturally evolved problem solvers with unprecedented levels of free time and a strong desire to contribute. For the past 60 years the popularity of television has been a powerful testament to our levels of free time despite frequent lamenting to the contrary. Time we previously sunk into watching television is now being spent on the Internet. Instead of passively absorbing information and viewpoints from a handful of producers, the populous is now able to answer back and we have just begun to witness the ramifications of this change.

Admittedly, a large percentage of the content created by the masses is trite and silly, but the sheer volume of output allows for even 2 percent of it to be a staggering amount of material. Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at NYU, has written several fascinating books on the topic. According to his research, wikipedia.org, represents with every line of code, every article, and every discussion approximately 100 million man-hours of effort. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Until you learn that that is the equivalent time this country spends watching television commercials. In a single weekend.

One company, Innocentive, uses crowdsourcing as the basis of its business model. Other companies with thorny problems in need of solving go to Innocentive offering a big cash reward for the answer. Right now Innocentive has offers ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. Innocentive signs up hundreds of thousands of people willing to take a stab at the problem for a cash prize. One clever fellow gets the cash, Innocentive skims from the other company’s reward, and the company with the problem now has a relatively inexpensive solution. Everyone wins and the collective human race takes another innovative step forward.

The Internet is, by most popular accounts, less then 20 years old and crowdsourcing on the Internet is far newer than that. We have only just begun to see the results of enabling millions of people to broadcast their contributions to the world. What kind of future can you imagine when billions of brains are harnessed to solve mankind’s problems?

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