Winner takes it all?August 17th, 2010 by Tommaso De Benetti
On this forum we spend a lot of time discussing the enormous potential of crowdsourcing, and how it is going to change all our lives for the better. At Microtask, we just love crowdsourcing. With that in mind, what I am about to say may shock you. I urge you to sit down.
In theory it’s great. Say you want a new identity for your company. All you do is post a design brief on the website, and then sit back and watch the submissions roll in. At the end of the process you only pay for your favorite submission.
99designs has all the mechanisms you would expect to ensure chosen work is paid for, avoiding both copyright theft and exploitation of the community purely as a source of inspiration. Even so, there is much criticism of how it and similar sites (such as reDesignMe, MycroBurst, CrowdSpring) operate.
Some claim that this kind of crowdsourcing incentivizes quantity over quality (note 99designs’ mantra “a new design uploaded on the site every 7 seconds”). There may be some truth to such claims, although presumably the fact that people are actively using the site suggests that they believe the results are worth the cost and effort.
People also argue that this “competitive crowdsourcing” exploits the contributors. As a user who commented on the article I mentioned earlier asked: “I want to know how many of you would show up at the office Monday morning if you had to compete with 92 co-workers for a single pay check at the end of the day?”. Note that the two criticisms are interrelated, in a way, given that the ability to only pay for one solution drives the cost down. (Of course an economist might argue that rational contributors factor in their chances of success as well as the possible reward when they make their decision to participate).
The idea that such communities lead to exploitation gathers weight when one considers that minors are prevalent amongst the contributors. Although 99designs is actively trying to stop people under 18 from accessing the community, their efforts are easily circumvented over the internet.
To this criticism one user replied “No one is forcing people to participate by sending in designs. This is all voluntary work. (…) For some of those 11-year-old designers, perhaps they really are showing an interest in art or design, and this gives them an avenue to exercise their nascent talents, or learn some designing skills, or software tools. Heck, I think it would be a great exercise for a school project in an Art/Design class to have every student work up a submittal as part of a class assignment.” (Without getting into this particular argument, personally I think that there is no doubt that a system like this would be a great teaching aid in certain circumstances).
Leaving these debates aside, for me the underlying question remains: when a high quality, creative output is required, is competitive crowdsourcing the best solution? To my mind, the key problem with these crowdsourcing communities is that submissions are mutually exclusive. If one is selected all the others are automatically discarded or must be reworked and adapted for different projects. Many of the issues surrounding exploitation of contributors flows on from this fundamental problem.
Happily, there is another way. Crowdsourcing concepts like Microtask’s, which rely on a very low level of worker input, have an entirely different approach. Every submission (or “microtask”), when added to all the other small fragments, cumulatively contributes to the successful completion of the whole task. Everyone who completes a task to the standard required will get the reward they expect.
Such a crowdsourcing solution clearly has enormous potential for tasks involving recurring steps or well defined mechanisms, but its ability to deliver creative solutions has yet to be proven.
This is an area we are currently researching. We would love to hear your opinion on how creativity and crowdsourcing could coexist in the same sentence without sacrificing output (and life) quality. Don’t worry; all interesting opinions will be rewarded with equal amounts of our gratitude and respect.