2,536 crowdsourcing and crowdfunding sites
When it comes to defining the term “crowdsourcing”, sometimes our industry feels a bit like the Judean People’s Front (sorry, I mean the People’s Front of Judea). We all want the same revolution, but can’t agree on how to achieve it.
This is a problem. Until the industry agrees on a definition crowdsourcing, the public will be confused about what we do. It will also be more challenging to form standards and best practices to protect those within the industry and the reputation of the industry itself.
Thankfully, this year sees the publication of two comprehensive reviews of the crowdsourcing process, both of which attempt to sift through the previous research and establish a definition that everyone can agree on. The two groups of researchers, one from the University of Mannheim and the other from the University of Valencia, take radically different approaches. The Mannheim team produced a detailed technical analysis of the various processes and mechanisms at work in crowdsourced ventures, aiming to dismantle the engine of crowdsourcing and really get to grips with how it works in the real world. The Valencia team, meanwhile, took a more philosophical approach to try and come up with the simplest possible definition.
The Mannheim paper centers on a four-dimensional taxonomy (which is sadly not a stuffed-animal-based time machine). It includes an incredible 96 possible variations on the crowdsourcing model, encompassing everything from crowdfunding to human computing. Their work is impressively thorough, and provides a handy tool for classifying the myriad crowd ventures out there.
In stark contrast to the Mannheim team's approach, researchers from the University of Valencia drew inspiration from Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz, who famously attempted to derive a global definition of art. Tatarkiewicz's method was to collect as many existing definitions as he could. He then set aside any definition, or part of a definition, which applied to one particular piece or only to one particular field, leaving himself with a set of general statements covering everything from music to painting to dance. Finally, he created the simplest possible definition that encompassed all of the statements.
The Valencia team followed Tatarkiewicz's method by combing through over two hundred journal papers, conference papers, books and technical reports, and extracting 40 existing global definitions of crowdsourcing. The list of definitions is fascinating, from Jeff Howe's bold, inspiring statements to the charmingly vague “a new innovation business model through internet.”
So what was their conclusion? First, here's Tatarkiewicz's definition of art:
"A work of art is either a reproduction of things, or a construction of forms, or an expression of experiences such that it is capable of evoking delight, or emotion, or shock."
And here's the definition of crowdsourcing the Valencia team came up with:
"Crowdsourcing is a type of participative online activity in which an individual, an institution, a non-profit organization, or company proposes to a group of individuals of varying knowledge, heterogeneity, and number, via a flexible open call, the voluntary undertaking of a task. The undertaking of the task, of variable complexity and modularity, and in which the crowd should participate bringing their work, money, knowledge and/or experience, always entails mutual benefit. The user will receive the satisfaction of a given type of need, be it economic, social recognition, self-esteem, or the development of individual skills, while the crowdsourcer will obtain and utilize to their advantage that what the user has brought to the venture, whose form will depend on the type of activity undertaken."
It may seem odd that the millennia-old concept of art, which includes everything from cave paintings to Caravaggio to Calvin and Hobbes, can be defined in 32 words, while the relatively recent concept of crowdsourcing requires 123. However, since the Valencia team derived their definition from the mountain of existing crowdsourcing research and its mass of conflicting opinion, it's no surprise that the results are so broad.
Taken with the 96 possible forms of crowdsourcing described by the Mannheim paper, this seems to demonstrate that “crowdsourcing” cannot be precisely and simply defined. This may mean that, as a meaningful term, its days are numbered.
Already subsets of crowdsourcing, most notably crowdfunding, are understood by the public and media without reference to the overarching term “crowdsourcing”. Subgroups, like crowdfunding, that are fundamentally different from other forms of crowdsourcing, need their own rules, regulations, standards and best practices. They are individuals and do not need to follow Brian other types of crowdsourcing for guidance. Looking on the bright side of life, this may not be such a bad thing. It is something that needs further thought and discussion, however.
- Ville "Wili" Miettinen is the founder and CEO of Microtask. He is a serial entrepreneur and investor, with 15 years of professional experience in software engineering and computer graphics. Wili was one of the founders of Hybrid Graphics (later NVIDIA Finland), a pioneer in real-time 3D graphics technologies. He has also been involved with the evolution of various open standards. Over the last few years Wili has been active in the Finnish early-stage technology investment scene, and holds board positions in a number of companies in the industry.