Crowdsourcing: amateur and proud

January 10th, 2011 by

microtask_amateur_crowdsourcingOther than politicians and bankers, few types of people come in for as much abuse as amateurs. The word itself is practically an insult: a goal gets fumbled, an actor forgets his lines and what time is it? Amateur hour. Maybe it’s just me, but a guy who says he’s “an amateur” usually has a weird look in his eyes and talks a lot about steam trains.

But perhaps it’s time to think again when it comes to non-professionals. Jeff Howe, one of crowdsourcing’s founding fathers, certainly thinks so. In his recent book Crowdsourcing: Why the power of the crowd is driving the future of business, Howe devotes a whole chapter to the valuable role played by amateurs through history. Looking back nearly 400 years, he discusses how the “gentleman scientists” of the 17th century collaborated, by mail, to form a major scientific institution – the Royal Society (or the invisible college as it was quaintly known).

Virtually the whole concept of crowdsourcing depends on self-driven enthusiasm. From T-shirt making to crowd funding – without interested men and women prepared to invest their free time the crowd simply wouldn’t exist. Today’s equivalent of the Royal Society is surely crowdsourcing sites like InnoCentive, which give citizens who aren’t tenured professors the chance to contribute to scientific discovery.

Working Definitions
The project that must rank as the ultimate example of pre-web amateur collaboration began in 1857. That was year the (appropriately Victorian sounding) London Philological Society started the immense task of creating a dictionary that included every word in the English language. As well as professional editors, the project involved a distributed army of volunteers. Hundreds of people, from all over England, sent in obscure words, quotations and whole entries. Hours of personal time were given, by amateurs, to create what would eventually become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Okay, removing my rose tinted lenses I have to admit that for all its 19th century glory, the Oxford Dictionary ain’t a patch on the distributed labors of Wikipedia contributors. OED volunteers took 50 years to produce 12 volumes. Jimmy Wales’ and Larry Sanger’s little helpers have tapped out over 3 million English language articles in under a decade (and kicked off a few never ending disputed page wars but hey, every century has its ups and downs). But, even if 21st century technology is light years beyond the 19th, it’s fair to say the impulse driving the OED and Wikipedia crowds was/is the same: the urge to collect, share and add to the sum of available knowledge.

Next generation collaboration
In a recent interview in Wired magazine, net heavyweight Clay Shirky points out that, for the first time in recent history, young people are watching less TV than their parents. Instead, kids are online. They’ve swapped, Shirky claims, an essentially passive form of entertainment for something you can actively engage with. He isn’t claiming young people are somehow superior (at least half of them are Justin Bieber fans after all), or that everything online is worthwhile. But that, given the choice, people go for a medium they can contribute to, as well as consume.

According to both Wiktionary and the OED, the root of the word amateur comes from a Latin term meaning “to love”. So how about we all get back to our roots, shake off amateur prejudice, and give the crowd some credit for participating in the stuff they love.

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  • George Shewchuk

    Good article. I totally agree that “self driven enthusiasm” is a key characteristic of the non-expert crowd ( who participate in contests which offer a monetary prize – I think that needs to be stated to distinguish crowdsourcing from simply volunteering your time and energy to a public and open project ). On those other platforms, crowdsourcing contests for reward that is, no amount of enthusiasm takes the place of even a little bit of deeper knowledge of the task at hand. You can’t really participate in a crowdsource project looking for chemical engineering solutions without having a considerable amount chemical engineering education, on the other hand you can try to design a logo without design experience, but in the final analysis even those “amateurs” often produce unusable results. There’s a lot of cool and fascinating ideas coming from the crowd out there but there’s also a lot of noise. – thanks