Hey! You! Get off my crowd: is crowdsourcing becoming a meaningless buzzword?

February 20th, 2012 by

microtask_superbowl_footballOver the last few months, I have been spending more and more time in the US, doing my best to soak up the famous American culture (while rushing between meetings).

Of course, regardless of what country you live in, one event which you cannot escape is the Super Bowl: that special time of year, when the world comes together to ignore America’s favorite sport. This year we in the crowdsourcing industry were forced to pay attention (but, mercifully, not to the game itself): amongst the usual 60 minutes of incomprehensible rhinoceros-ballet scattered over a four hour broadcast, some 111 million American households were treated to the best the ad industry has to offer. On display this year, according to several delirious press releases, were a selection of the world’s first crowdsourced adverts.

But before we get all excited about our industry’s move into the mainstream, let’s have a look at what actually happened (I promise I don’t mean in the actual football). Several sponsors, including Doritos and Chevrolet, held online ‘crowdsourcing’ contests giving entrants the chance to see their home-made ads in the coveted half-time slot, rubbing shoulders with Clint Eastwood (selling cars in an ultra-patriotic Chrysler ad ), Matthew Broderick (selling cars by squeezing out the last drops of nostalgia from his cheeky Ferris Bueller grin), and Kim Kardashian (doing something that I’m not going to bother dignifying with a link).

Out of thousands of entries, each company picked one lucky winner to receive prizes of up to $30,000. Doritos featured a man being bribed with tortilla chips to keep quiet about the activities of his murderous dog, Chevrolet fared less well with a predictable graduation day mix-up, while yoghurt maker Dannon’s choice faced multiple accusations of plagiarism with its suspiciously familiar tale of greed triumphing over romance set to a suspiciously familiar musical accompaniment.

The crowd goes wild?

While in some ways it is nice for the crowdsourcing industry to get this sort of attention, the focus on competitive crowdsourcing distracts from the unique opportunities that the crowd can offer.

As we have discussed before, competitive crowdsourcing, which only ends up using a single participant’s work, is the least effective form of crowdsourcing. Crowds are most productive when they work together, as we’ve seen with our experience at Digitalkoot, where thousands of small contributions added up to a huge achievement. In competitive crowdsourcing projects, most of the work done is wasted. There is no real co-operation (unless you consider plagiarism a form of assistance). Finally, none of the really exciting, juicy bits of crowdsourcing theory, like collective reasoning, can come into play.

In some ways, this comes back to the issue of the vague terminology that surrounds a lot of crowd-based enterprises, and the multiple models that are described by the word ‘crowdsourcing.’ The Super Bowl ads demonstrate on a grand scale why it is important for the different parts of the crowdsourcing industry to differentiate themselves from what is fast becoming a meaningless buzzword.

Crowded house of representatives

Thankfully, while the NFL sponsors have been parroting the term, crowdsourcing has quietly been getting on with the business of revolutionizing the world. The US Congress has unveiled a draft form of its new Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, a more considered alternative to the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills. It was opened to the crowd for amendment, and the input of some 150 users resulted in six alterations to the bill. This comes right after new research revealed that crowdsourced businesses may have an even brighter future than everyone (except us, of course) predicted.

Away from the sideshow of the Super Bowl ‘crowdsourcing’ experiment, with its alarmingly sexist corn chip commercials and accusations of plagiarism, the crowdsourcing model continues to demonstrate its value in both the public and private spheres. The best we can do is to explore the possibilities of the crowd to the full, and try and take this kind of half-baked imitation as a compliment.


  • http://www.facebook.com/enrique.estelles Enrique EstellĂ©s Arolas

    I think that the main point is what you call “vague terminology”. 

    There is a background problem with the crowdsourcing definition. A problem that causes ambiguity, and that doesn’t allow to differentiate what is and what isn’t crowdsourcing. This problem makes the concept weak. In this way, crowdsourcing is… well, whatever you want.
    I think that a clear and global definition of the term should be used.

  • http://twitter.com/YJDdave David Caldwell

    I agree a lot of confusion over terminology. Particularly now that peer-to-peer mobile is hotting up a loft of people are bandying about terms like collaborative consumption and crowd sourcing withut a clear impression in their mind of what either means.
    You really hit the nail on the head here “competitive crowdsourcing, which only ends up using a single participant’s work, is the least effective form of crowdsourcing”  . I found with competitions I have run through crowdsourcing platforms (like 99designs) have been hopeless if not kept completely open and transparent so that all participants can learn simultaneously. For me, that process of collective learning and improvement is the defining benefit of crowdsourcing.


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