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What Wizard Battles Can Teach Us About Crowdsourcing

June 13th, 2012 by

microtask_magic_the_gatheringI’d like to start with a confession: when I’m not thinking about crowdsourcing, I’m busy being a huge geek. Not trendy geek chic, unfortunately, but the old fashioned type (a trendsetter maybe?). Read on bearing this in mind.

My main vice is Magic: the Gathering, a role-play card game where players are magically-dueling wizards. The only game pieces are cards which represent classical magic spells like fire blasts and enchantments. Like I said, I’m a geek.

What does this have to do with crowdsourcing? Well, about 10 years ago, the company that makes this game turned to its fans the players, and for the first time said “you make a card”. What followed was almost a year of creative inspiration and community collaboration, resulting in two additional campaigns and a total of three extremely well-designed cards. Even today, any company that wants to tap into a crowd for creative purposes should look at Magic’s R&D team to see how to properly weigh a campaign’s incentives, barriers to entry and compartmentalization.

Incentives: all you need is love

Before the campaign, Magic’s design and R&D had always been very secretive and insular, a process conducted in such a manner that fans could neither observe nor contribute to it. Some fans turned to making their own custom cards, but they were never accepted, as Magic R&D was expressly forbidden from considering player-submitted cards. So basically here was a community that was intensely passionate, deeply creative but with no opportunity to participate in the design of the game.

In this situation, incentivizing crowd involvement was simply a matter of allowing it. That, and giving bragging rights to important people in the decision-making process, such as those who create the card’s name or key mechanic.

Removing barriers to entry

The easiest way to build a useful crowd is to find one that already exists. Magic R&D turned to the community website and blog. They were keen fans and already had some understanding of the R&D and design process from blog posts on the subject. Multiplayer games like this generally have a strong community, so Magic R&D could also count on its players to get the word out.

Dealing with compartmentalization

A common problem with crowdsourced projects is that everyone works independently, only sharing work when it is finished. This causes a lot of duplication of effort and restricts collaboration. Magic R&D avoided this by breaking the design process into 24 collaborative steps.

By controlling the process like this, Magic R&D could keep their normal, iterative design process, which may involve a card being changed dozens of times before its final print. The forum discussions between each step also allowed the community to come to a better consensus on which direction to go, and identify potential problems early on. Finally, it ensured that both Magic R&D and the community were present at every step, designing together as a unit instead of pitted against each other.

The three crowdsourcing campaigns created three new cards. All had unique effects, unlike any card that had been seen before. All were highly rated on the official card database. Each successive campaign was bigger than the last, and now some fans are asking for a fourth.

All of this happened before crowdsourcing was really “a thing”. It shows that any brand with loyal fans (and some dedication) can create something great (even if they’re not following common practice because common practice hasn’t been invented yet).

Seth has a blog, TinyWork.


Predicting the Facebook IPO: The crowd gets it wrong

June 6th, 2012 by

microtask_facebook_ipoAn excess of confidence can be a dangerous thing. As Mark Zuckerberg ponders the jagged descent of Facebook’s share price and industry analysts scramble to explain the social network’s woes, the aura of optimism that heralded the Facebook IPO has evaporated.

So how did it all go so wrong? One clue may lie in the crowdsourced prediction site FacebookIPODayClosingPrice.com. The site was created in response to a suggestion by venture capitalist Chris Sacca that someone should create a forum where pundits could register their predictions before the big day. Although share markets are notoriously irrational, in a way it makes a lot of sense. Who better to predict something based on the whims of a crowd than a crowd?

When voting closed, a total of 2,261 Twitter users had predicted a price of $54. This was nearly $16 above the first day closing price of $38.60 (before dropping to a downright disastrous low of $30.94). Even billionaires make mistakes, but crowds are supposed to be infallible (or at least wise), right? So why did the crowd get it so wrong?

The Social Net Worth

First off, I wonder if the crowd had actually been betting its own money on the price it would have generated a more accurate guess. But otherwise, the site did everything right to properly harness the predictive power of collective reasoning: the vote didn’t exclude non-expert members, discussion was rampant on Twitter, and the experiment seemed to attract a healthy mix of views.

But a quick Twitter-stalking session reveals that of the 26 voters who correctly predicted a closing price of $38, only three were in any way experts (a Google+ engineer, a tech entrepreneur, and an analyst at Bloomberg, who probably deserves a promotion). The other correct answers came from all over the world, from Swiss web designers, Australian students and American Hockey fanatics.

In fact, it looks like experts gave the least accurate predictions. When the results are ordered by number of followers (with Chris Sacca’s 1,338,761 followers taking him and his guess of $56 to the top of the list), it becomes clear that venture capitalists, industry insiders and pundits were far too optimistic in their predictions.

The more you know, the less you know

This may not come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog who remember the concept of collective ignorance, the name given to the spooky ability of non-expert crowds to generate more accurate predictions than teams of experts, under the right conditions. The effect is partially explained by the possibility that insiders are more sensitive to hype, and that they have more invested (in some cases, literally) in the outcome.

Though the sample size of 2,261 is too small to draw firm conclusions, the results of Proud’s experiment are consistent with what we know about channelling the wisdom of the crowd. Despite the presence of hundreds of analysts, entrepreneurs and investors, it was the average citizen whose aggregate predictions were closer to the mark.

By offering a real-world example, FacebookIPODayClosingPrice.com adds to the weight of academic studies into curious crowd effects like collective ignorance. What initially looks like a crowdsourcing failure is actually a fascinating opportunity for analysis (and Twitter-stalking). This may be small comfort to those who lost money in the IPO, but will hopefully assist future projects harness the wisdom of the crowd.


7 degrees of failure: Is the power of the crowd overrated?

May 30th, 2012 by

microtask_7_degrees.jpgAs anyone who has ever wandered the aisles of an airport bookstore knows, the world today is a flat and shrinking global village (with a long tail), where everyone is friends with Kevin Bacon. Those of us who spend our time immersed in the hyper-connected world that crowdsourcing inhabits find this all very plausible. But how true is it, really? Is the world a village where anonymity (or avoiding Kevin Bacon and Joseph Kony) is now impossible?

Last month’s TAG Challenge, suggests we are not there, just yet. The TAG Challenge was a real-life crowdsourced gaming competition in which five “jewel thieves” hid in plain sight in cities around the world. To win, teams had to locate and snap pictures of the suspects by any means they could think of. Using the crowd (through forums, social media and such) was vital.

TAG, you’re it
While three of the thieves were found by teams, two were not. Where were these two, you ask? In Pyongyang’s first supermarket? In the slums of Nairobi or sewers of Delhi? Actually, no. They were in Stockholm and London. (Clearly no one won the Carmen Sandiego Lifetime Achievement Award this time round.)

For crime-fighters and crowdsourcerers (yes, that’s a new term) around the world this is disappointing – especially if you consider that this kind of lend-us-your-eyes crowdsourcing only really works in populated areas. It doesn’t even take into account the fact that 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, where it is apparently exceedingly difficult to find people. (Just think: even with all of the technology we have today – GPS, smartphones, satellites floating around in the thermosphere – there are vast regions of the world where pirates still ply their trade. Pirates! In 2012! This is no excuse, by the way, Johnny Depp. Please do not make any more Pirates of the Caribbean movies.)

Of course, if you’re into global hide and seek challenges, the TAG Challenge is not the only game in town (“phew!” I hear you say). There is also Geocaching, in which participants try to find hidden items using teamwork, GPS and mobile phones. But, like crowdsourcing, this game works a lot better when the object of your search leaves itself open to being found. If I really wanted to hide my Lucky Charms, I’m not going to post their coordinates online and leave them under a bush at the local dog park.

So even today with all our crowdsourcing and hi-tech toys, you can disappear just by heading somewhere a little off the map (apparently London and the Indian Ocean are equally good for this) or invest in a decent disguise. Does this mean that the power and reach of crowdsourcing is overrated? Perhaps, when it comes to tracking people down. After all, there are quite a few of us humans now.

But this does not mean that crowdsourcing itself is overrated. Ok, so we couldn’t track down a jewel thief in Stockholm. (Did I mention that Pain of Salvation was playing a free concert at Klubben that night? My guess is a strange man would not have stuck out in this crowd).

The more important point is that these sorts of challenges are even plausible. To me, this fact speaks volumes about where humanity is heading. In a world where billions of people are becoming more connected every minute, the power of the crowd is virtually limitless. Harnessing it is another question, of course. (One that we never get tired of discussing.)


An Eye for the Eye: Mapping Retinal Neurons with the Crowd

May 23rd, 2012 by

microtask_eyeIf you’ve ever had a close encounter of the lamppost kind you’ll know that the eye can sometimes deceive us. But considering just how complex the eye is you might think it would let us down more often.

You may remember from your high school biology classes that basically (very basically) light enters the eye through the pupil and falls on photo receptive cells called rods and cones. These send an electrical impulse that travels through the optic nerve and into the brain, creating the sensation we experience as sight. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.

Inside the retina are 5 different types of neuron (although some scientists believe there may be as many as 60) and there are millions of each type in each eye. With some 100 billion neurons in the brain as a whole, trying to understand how it all works is no easy task.

Here’s looking at you Crowd

Undeterred by these gargantuan numbers, a group from MIT (who must have a few neurons to spare) has developed the EyeWire project. The project incorporates some ingenious techniques to map the mind-bogglingly complex web of neurons in the retina.

Beginning with a series of cross sections through the retinal neurons of a flatworm, they developed a sophisticated image processing algorithm that created a 3D model of the neural network from the 2D images.

To check the accuracy of the 3D models they required something even more sophisticated than the algorithm. Realizing that the very subject of their inquiry was probably the best tool for the job the team broke the images up into small blocks and distributed them online for volunteers to verify by sight.

The result is a sort of optical puzzle. The player traces a colored neuron through a series of 2D images as it weaves and branches its way through clusters of seemingly identical blobs. Your task is to fill in any color missing from the neuron.

At first it seems an impossible task but it quickly becomes almost intuitive. After several minutes of squinting at a series of blobs it is incredibly satisfying to find a new branch and have it pop up on the 3D window in the corner of your screen.

The most determined players will get a position on the leader board. Maintaining that position or moving up the board should provide ample motivation to keep people coming back to what is an enjoyably challenging and surprisingly relaxing way to spend your time.

The Future Looks Bright

As well as providing enjoyment for its volunteers Eyewire is also contributing to our understanding of the eye’s nervous system. Potentially the research could result in treatments for disorders like epilepsy and new ways to revert and prevent different types of blindness.

The method is already being applied to the rest of the brain’s neurons with the “Wired Differently” program which could result in better understanding and treatments for conditions like autism and schizophrenia. Perhaps one day we may even understand the brain well enough to prevent the hilarious but debilitating problem of walking into glass doors.


Crowdopolis 2012

May 17th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdopolis_2012What are you planning to do on July 19th? “Sit on a beach sipping a mojito” may be your answer, but it is wrong. What we really want to hear is “I’m attending Crowdopolis 2012 in Los Angeles”. See? It wasn’t that hard (and conferences are better for your skin).

Quick recap: that day, our friends at Daily Crowdsource are organizing an event about the future of crowdsourcing in advertising, tech, and content marketing. And they want you, the expert crowd, there to voice your opinion!

You can take a look at the agenda here (it’s a work in progress, so make sure you check it periodically) and at the confimed list of speakers here.

Specially priced early birds tickets are going fast, so make sure you buy one now.

Plus, you’ll be able to attend the afterparty to network with all speakers and guests after the final presentation, so you’ll even get that mojito eventually.


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