Sponsored By

Correcting Crowdsourcing MisconceptionsCorrecting Crowdsourcing Misconceptions

The reputation of crowdsourcing as a way of generating new ideas got a recent boost from the <a href="http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/06/winning-teams-join-to-qualify-for-1-million-netflix-prize/">$1 million Netflix prize</a>, which was awarded to a group of people who invented an algorithm for suggesting movies to users of the online movie subscription service.

Michael Hickins

October 5, 2009

3 Min Read

The reputation of crowdsourcing as a way of generating new ideas got a recent boost from the $1 million Netflix prize, which was awarded to a group of people who invented an algorithm for suggesting movies to users of the online movie subscription service.The trouble is, that's not really crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is not about throwing an open-ended problem at a mass of people and hoping someone comes up with a great idea.

That's what's called a contest. Maybe the most well-known example of crowdsourcing is the use of "Ask the Audience" in the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" TV show, in which a self-selected group of people is asked to pick from four possible answers. More often than not, the vast preponderance of answers are for the correct choice. A better example of crowdsourcing is the Hollywood Stock Exchange, also a game involving a self-selecting group that "invests" in movie projects in all stages of development. "Investors" can buy or sell at any point between the time the project gets listed on the Exchange and the time it's released to the general public, so players can, for instance, "sell" if news leaks that the star of a particular vehicle was admitted to a rehab center. It turns out that the movie's actual box office performance tracks fairly well to how it did as a stock on the Exchange (also known as a prediction market). That's crowdsourcing. As Harvard Business School social media expert Andrew McAfee noted in a recent post, crowdsourcing has: been shown to deliver more accurate predictions about political elections and movie revenues than other techniques like polls and statistical forecasting methods. Pioneering efforts to use them within companies show that they're also highly accurate when deployed behind the firewall. Open source development is another form of crowdsourcing; while seemingly more open-ended than crowdsourcing projects as I've described them above, it's actually fairly closed in that developers commit to a particular project defined by a group of the most active members of the project in question. The value of the crowd in this case isn't the innovation, but rather the opportunity to employ the talents of a large pool of motivated and qualified people, and an even larger number of people vetting code to ensure it isn't buggy. But this is where many observers, including the most experienced enterprise technology consultants, can go wrong. Dan Woods, CTO of Evolved Media, noted in a recent article in Forbes that There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. Frequently, these innovators have been funded through failure after failure. From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing. Dan's right to the extent that the crowd "creates nothing" -- because the crowd doesn't originate any of the projects on which it's called to work its magic. But Dan's absolutely wrong to say the crowd solves nothing. The crowd, when asked, solves riddles and provides direction with almost unfailing accuracy. As McAfee noted The evidence is mounting that corporate prediction markets work as advertised, delivering quick, accurate, and decisive predictions in areas of great interest. It would be a shame to lose the real benefits of crowdsourcing because of misconceptions about what it can and can't provide society or enterprise. While it shares a lot of traits in common with collectivism, it isn't a philosophy, it's a tool. Sometimes, like with open source, the crowd can benefit from participating in the project. But more often, crowdsourcing is a tool used by individuals or corporations to help make better decisions. To paraphrase McAfee, why wouldn't you want to take advantage of that?

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights