How Many People Does It Take to Redesign a Light Bulb?: USC’s Daren Brabham on Crowdsourcing (Part One)

This week, I want to use my blog to welcome a new colleague to the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism here at USC. I was lucky enough to have met Daren Brabham when he was still a graduate student at the University of Utah. Brabham had quickly emerged as one of the country’s leading experts about crowdsourcing as an emerging practice impacting a range of different industries. The video above shows Brabham discussing this important topic while he was an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina. But, this fall, USC was lucky enough to lure him away, and I am personally very much looking forward to working with him as he brings his innovative perspectives on strategic communications to our program.

Brabham’s insights are captured in a concise, engaging, and accessible book published earlier this fall as part of the MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series simply titled Crowdsourcing. Brabham is attentive to the highly visible commercial applications of these practices but also the ways that these ideas are being incorporated into civic and journalistic enterprises to change how citizens interface with those institutions that most directly effect their lives. He also differentiates crowdsourcing from a range of other models which depend on collective intelligence, crowd-funding, or other mechanisms of participatory culture. And he was nice enough to explore some of these same issues through an interview for this blog.

The term, “Crowdsourcing,” has been applied so broadly that it becomes harder and harder to determine precisely what it means. How do you define it in the book and what would be some contemporary examples of crowd-sourcing at work?

There is certainly a bit of controversy about what counts as crowdsourcing. I think it is important to provide some structure to the term, because if everything is crowdsourcing, then research and theory development rests on shaky conceptual foundations. One of the principal aims of my book is to clarify what counts as crowdsourcing and offer a typology for understanding the kinds of problems crowdsourcing can solve for an organization.

I define crowdsourcing as an online, distributed problem solving and production model that leverages the collective intelligence of online communities to serve an organization’s needs. Importantly, crowdsourcing is a deliberate blend of bottom-up, open, creative process with top-down organizational goals. It is this meeting in the middle of online communities and organizations to create something together that distinguishes crowdsourcing from other phenomena. The locus of control resides between the community and the organization in crowdsourcing.

One of the great examples of crowdsourcing is Threadless, which falls into what I call the peer-vetted creative production (PVCP) type of crowdsourcing. At Threadless, the company has an ongoing call for t-shirt designs. The online community at Threadless, using an Illustrator or Photoshop template provided by the company, submits silk-screened t-shirt designs to the website. The designs are posted in the community gallery, where other members of the online community can comment or vote on those designs. The highest rated designs are then printed and sold back to the community through the Threadless site, with the winning designers receiving a modest cash reward. This is crowdsourcing – specifically the PVCP type of crowdsourcing – because the online community is both submitting original creative content and vetting the work of peers, offering Threadless not only an engine for creation but also fine-tuned marketing research insights on future products.

Threadless is different from, say, the DEWmocracy campaign, where Mountain Dew asked Internet users to vote on one of three new flavors. This is just simple marketing research; there is no real creative input being offered by the online community. DEWmocracy was all top-down. On the other end of the spectrum is Wikipedia and many open source software projects. In these arrangements, the organization provides a space within which users can create, but the organization is not really directing the day-to-day production of that content. It is all highly structured, but the structure comes from the grassroots; it is all bottom-up. Where organizations meet these communities in the middle, steering their creative insights in strategic directions, is where crowdsourcing happens.

Some have questioned the use of the concept of the “crowd” in “crowdsourcing,” since the word, historically, has come linked to notions of the “mob” or “the masses.” What are the implications of using “crowd” as opposed to “community” or “public” or “collaborative”?

I am not sure that crowdsourcing is really the best term for what is happening in these situations, but it is the term Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson came up with for Howe’s June 2006 article in Wired, which was where the term was coined. It is no doubt a catchy, memorable term, and it rightly invokes outsourcing (and all the baggage that goes with outsourcing). The “crowd” part may be a bit misleading, though. I have strayed away from referring to the crowd as “the crowd” and have moved more toward calling these groups “online communities,” which helps to anchor the concept in much more established literature on online communities (as opposed to literature on swarms, flash mobs, and the like).

The problem with “crowd” is that it conjures that chaotic “mob” image. These communities are not really masses. They tend to be groups of experts or hobbyists on a topic related to a given crowdsourcing application who self-select into the communities – graphic designers at Threadless, professional scientists at InnoCentive, and so on. They are not “amateurs” as they are often called in the popular press. Most of the truly active members of these online communities – no surprise – are more like invested citizens in a community than folks who were accidentally swept up in a big rush to join a crowdsourcing site.

The professional identities of these online community members raise some critical issues regarding labor. The “sourcing” part of “crowdsourcing” brings the issue of “outsourcing” to the fore, with all of outsourcing’s potential for exploitation abroad and its potential to threaten established professions. No doubt, some companies embark on crowdsourcing ventures with outsourcing in mind, bent on getting unwitting users to do high-dollar work on the cheap. These companies give crowdsourcing a bad name. Online communities are wise to this, especially the creative and artistic ones, and there are some notable movements afoot, for example, to educate young graphic designers to watch out for work “on spec” or “speculative work,” which are the kinds of exploitive arrangements many of these crowdsourcing ventures seek.

It is important to note that online communities are motivated to participate in crowdsourcing for a variety of reasons. Many crowdsourcing arrangements can generate income for participants, and there are folks who are definitely motivated by the opportunity to make some extra money. Still others participate because they are hoping through their participation to build a portfolio of work to secure future employment; Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan cleverly call this kind of thing “hope labor.” Still others participate because they enjoy solving difficult problems or they make friends with others on the website. As long as organizations understand and respect these different motivations through policies, community design, community recognition, or compensation, online communities will persist. People voluntarily participate in crowdsourcing, and they are free to leave a site if they are unhappy or feel exploited, so in spite of my Marxian training I often find it difficult to label crowdsourcing “exploitive” outright.

Daren C. Brabham is an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is the author of the book Crowdsourcing (MIT Press, 2013) and has published widely on issues of crowdsourcing in governance and the motvations of online communities. His website is