Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Amateurism: Out from Under the Shadetree

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Jeff Howe’s 2006 article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” called attention to new methods of directing collaborative energy. As with any next “big thing,” the first principles from which this movement grew have been applied for some time. The field of mathematics often turns to the masses for proofs—witness the Poincaire conjecture proof from the Millenium problem list, for instance, or the Universal Turing proof—although these masses are a decidedly rarefied lot. The Ansari X-prize pried space from the hands of bureaucrats, and more than one explorer set sail without professional credentials in hopes of disproportionate payoff. A variety of factors—cheap infrastructure software, fast communications technology, effective information search—now makes it possible to apply this open approach to various tasks. Howe assigned a category to this field: “crowdsourcing”. The Wikipedia definition follows:

Crowdsourcing is a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.

A more complete definition would make a distinction between crowdsourcing and other forms of collective enterprise such as Wikipedia, Yelp, and the Linux kernel. Whereas compensation for these efforts emanates principally from enhanced reputation and self-satisfaction, crowdsourcing attempts to exploit the power of weak links. Success stories from InnoCentive—one of which is chonicled in Howe’s article—illustrate this objective. As one sardonic wag wryly noted, experts are people who know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. By contrast, an amateur may bring a diverse set of loosely connected skills to bear on a problem. If innovation results from questioning assumptions, then amateurs have an ex officio advantage in that they often do not know which assumptions to make from the outset.

The question of payment remains unanswered (this is the sign of an immature market). Two approaches currently exist, but I suspect that neither of them will grow into a sustainable revenue source. Podcasts have long used crowdfunding to support themselves. The author solicits contributions from the more dedicated consumers who can then choose to donate money, usually through Paypal. Public media has supported itself in this manner for decades, but one could hardly point to that model as a lucrative enterprise. Other crowdsourcing services organize themselves as brokerages—Amazon Mechanical Turk, InnoCentive, and Crowdspring are representative cases. Consumers use these tools to locate suppliers; the clearinghouses charge a percentage of the transaction. eBay has built an empire using this model, but whereas eBay deals mainly in stuff, crowdsourcing companies sell intellectual property. The latter is much harder to evaluate, protect, and exchange. For instance, what is the legal process associated with InnoCentive solutions? The contractual process must resemble the IP agreements signed by new employees at technology companies, otherwise the “solvers” could market their wares without reservation. What then differentiates a “solver” from a “contractor”?

Several other issues remain:

  • How do crowdsourcing companies achieve “critical mass”, e.g. what is the best strategy for seeding the site?
  • How do consumers maintain a working relationship with suppliers during the course of a project? Amateurs may lose interest in the work or be overcome with the demands of their primary vocations. How can consumers mitigate these risks?

Written by Spence

August 3rd, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Tech Trends

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