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

You seek to distinguish crowdsourcing from  Kickstarter, which get described from time to time in those terms. What is at stake in making these distinctions?

Crowdsourcing is conceptually distinct from crowdfunding. It is only the “crowd” in their names that lumps them together. The one thing they have in common is the existence of an online community.

Where crowdsourcing is a co-creative process where organizations incorporate the labor and creative insights of online communities into the very creation of something (the design of a product, the solving of a tough chemical formula, etc.), crowdfunding involves using the monetary donations from an online community to bring an already conceived concept to market. That is, most of the projects on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter are not asking for individuals to help shape a creative project. Rather, Kickstarter projects are asking for financial backing to bring someone else’s idea into being.

While different, both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding will be enormously important players in the future economy.

While you cite some earlier examples of collaborative production processes, you insist that crowdsourcing really only emerges in the era of networked computing. What did digital media bring to the production process that wasn’t there before?

The capabilities of the Internet – its speed, reach, temporal flexibility, and so on – completely changed the music industry, its legal terrain, and more. The ability to share digital files online quickly, relatively anonymously, all over the world, without loss of file quality – this is why we do not just say that the MP3, torrents, and peer-to-peer file sharing services are fundamentally different from what took place with cassette tape piracy and mix tape sharing. The technology elevated the concept of sharing and piracy to a new level. That is the way I view crowdsourcing and why I see crowdsourcing as really only emerging in recent years.

Many critics like to say that crowdsourcing has been going on for centuries, that any sort of large-scale problem solving or creative project over the last several hundred years counts as crowdsourcing. I think, though, that the speed, reach, temporal flexibility, and other features of the Internet allow crowdsourcing to be conceptually distinct from something like the distributed creation of the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1800s.

You note that crowdsourcing has shown only modest success when tested in the field of journalism. What is it about journalism which makes it harder to apply these models?

There have been plenty of experiments with citizen journalism and other forms of open, participatory reporting, and some of these have even kind of succeeded. I have heard much more critique of crowdsourced journalism than praise, though, and I think I know why. There are four problem types for which crowdsourcing seems to be suitable for addressing. Two of these types address information management problems (the knowledge discovery and management type and the distributed human intelligence tasking type) and two of the types address ideation problems (the broadcast search type and the peer-vetted creative production type).

The problem with some of the crowdsourced journalism experiments that have happened so far is that the writing of entire stories is attempted by an online community. It is still much easier for a single talented writer to report a story than it is to write a narrative by committee. The future of crowdsourced journalism will need to stick closely to these four problem types, crowdsourcing portions of the reporting process while keeping the act of story writing under the control of one or a few trained journalists.

Plenty of steps in the journalistic process can be crowdsourced, though! New organizations can turn to online communities and charge them with finding and assembling scattered bits of information on a given story topic. Or online communities can be asked to comb through large data sets or pore over huge archives for journalists. Crowdsourcing may very well breathe new life into investigative journalism, a rather expensive kind of reporting that some cash-strapped news organizations have drifted away from. Online communities may turn out to be the best tools for journalists hoping to put some teeth back in the Fourth Estate.

 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 www.darenbrabham.com.