Beyond Crowdsourcing

I am weary of the term "crowdsourcing." Now, I'm not against the concept. I think small, bite-sized acts of service and kindness can make huge differences in the right situations. Indeed, it's the social-benefits business model of The Extraordinaries, and is at the core of what Yochai Benkler means when he discusses the power of "peer production" in The Wealth of Networks:

People began to apply behaviors they practice in their living rooms or in the elevator — "Here, let me lend you a hand," or "What did you think of last night’s speech?" — to production problems that had, throughout the twentieth century, been solved on the model of Ford and General Motors. The rise of peer production is neither mysterious nor fickle when viewed through this lens. It is as rational and efficient given the objectives and material conditions of information production at the turn of the twenty-first century as the assembly line was for the conditions at the turn of the twentieth.

But the term "crowdsourcing" itself is outdated. It presumes that there's some central organization doing the sourcing (paralleling "outsourcing"), and it seems to get applied in all sorts of roles where that's not relevant.

Twitter, for example, is not crowdsourced news and entertainment updates, it's actually a miraculous, ever-flowing firehose of minute updates and peer-based information sharing. It's not a news source because it is organized as such, but because "news" is an emergent quality when you have thousands of people continuously commenting on the world around them. Which turns out to be less surprising, somehow, when you look at it like that. It turns out that most "news" happens within eyesight or earshot of someone around the world, and if you combine that with path-breaking new communications devices like mobiles, you suddenly have a global "sensor array." It's in this world where our "old" news media must rediscover a reason to exist, as they are no longer the gateway for global information. Perhaps they should have a chat with librarians?

But Twitter (and citizen journalism writ large) is just the first step. As mobile connectivity grows worldwide (and Internet follows behind at a slower pace), more and more as-of-now centralized systems and industries will have to re-organize around the new reality of people as partners, producers, and creators of information. This will be market prices, groups of people sharing notes and thereby forcing greater honesty and transparency in their business interactions (patients sharing treatment diagnoses and costs about doctors, for example -- it will be the next evolution from the Better Business Bureau being augmented by sites like Yelp and whatever replaces Yelp).

It will be mobile, immediate, global, empowering, and very, very exciting.

Update: Grameen's AppLab is an early example of this evolution in mobile platforms, as it relates to development. It's more centralized still, but is a (huge) step.


Jimmy Wales and I had quite a discussion about this term 3 yrs ago. He hates "crowd sourcing" because of the business model connotations. He prefers "community produced" of course I agree with him but "crowd sourcing" has become such a known if imperfect vocabulary word - I still end up using it.

Even though I find it distasteful.