Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why I love crowdsourcing (the concept) and hate crowdsourcing (the term)

The term crowdsourcing is in fashion. It is being used to describe pretty much everything under the sun today.

Unfortunately, the word crowdsourcing is also getting increasingly associated with "getting things done for free", or at least at ultra-cheap prices. The "crowd" will generate the content for the website. The "crowd" will fix the mistakes. The "crowd" will do everything, and preferably for "points", for "badges", for a spot on the leaderboard, or may be for a few pennies if we end up using Mechanical Turk.

But this association of the term crowdsourcing with low cost labor, is now visibly turning people off. Everybody wants to "use" the crowd but the workers in the crowd feel stiffed. The NoSpec movement was an early warning. The angry tone of some of the threads in Turker Nation is also an indication that many workers are not very happy with the way that they are treated by some requesters.

However, these negative associations are now endangering a very important concept: The idea that we can structure tasks in a way that are robust to the presence of imperfect workers, and that anyone can participate, as long as there is work available. Well-structured tasks allow the on-the-task evaluation of the workers, and can automatically infer whether someone is a good fit for a task or not.

This is not insignificant. It is well-known that one of the biggest barriers for breaking into the workforce is to have prior relevant experience. Students today often beg to get unpaid internships, just to have in their resume the lines with the coveted work experience. In online labor markers, newcomers often bid lower than what they would accept normally, just to build their feedback history. Crowdsourcing can change that.

But as long as crowdsourcing gets associated with low wages, nobody will see the real benefit: That work is within reach, immediately. That someone can experiment with different types of work easily (stock trading? product design?).

Perhaps a new term can describe better the true value of crowdsourcing, and also get the stigmatizing term "crowd" out of the name. (Nobody wants to be part of a "crowd".)

Personally, I favor the term "open work". As in the case of "open access" and "open source software", it describes the opportunity to access work, without barriers. I also like the "fair trade work" motto from MobileWorks but this is more closely connected to work being offered to developing countries. But I think that "open work" captures better the essence of the advantages behind crowdsourcing.

Update: The term open is indeed also associated with free-as-in-beer consumption. However, open can refer both to the supply-side (production) and the demand-side (consumption). For example:

  • Linux is open, in the sense that anyone can take the source code, modify it, and contribute back (open production); open source software is also available, often, for free, for installation to any machine (open consumption). 
  • In publishing, open access typically means accessing papers without paying (open consumption), but there are also journals (e.g., PLoS ONE) that accept pretty much any technically-valid paper (open production).
In the case of crowdsourcing, "open work" would refer mainly to the open production side. As in the production side of open source, and open access publishing, it does not mean that the participants are not paid for the generation of the artifacts.

What do you think?