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Few individuals understand crowdsourced solutions better than Luis von Ahn.
Currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon, von Ahn helped to pave the way for crowdsourcing through a number of projects, most notable of which is reCAPTCHA. That tool asks users to type out bits of text to determine that you’re human. The words, though, are not just random letters mixed together. In fact, they are words form old newspapers and books, which the crowd is helping to digitize. Google bought reCAPTCHA in 2009.
What are the company's plans for 2014? We got in touch with von Ahn recently to discuss Duolingo, and crowdsourcing in general.
Anton Root, Crowdsourcing.org: When did you realize that large groups of people connected online can be useful in solving some of the world’s problems?
Luis von Ahn, Duolingo: That must have been in 2001, a while ago. It started with this game that I made called the ESP game, where the idea was that people were playing it, and they were also helping to label images in Google Image search.
It was successful and pretty eye opening. It was a game that was actually pretty fun. It ended up being played by a few million people and the idea was that as they were playing, they were improving image search. Basically, it was really eye opening in terms of the power of large groups of people being able to do something together.
You've made your crowdsourcing projects free for users and valuable for your clients. Most crowdsourcing firms are trying to strike that balance. Do you have any advice for crowdsourcing entrepreneurs?
I would say that really making sure that there’s a — in terms of crowdsourcing, there are a lot of different incentives for people to [participate in] crowdsourcing. I think the most common one is the Mechanical Turk kind of platform: get a few cents for doing this or that. I just try to find things that people want, anyway. In the case of Duolingo, it’s learning a language, something that millions of people want to do. The way I like to see it is a gym where you also generate electricity. Whenever you are pedaling a bicycle, it’s also generating electricity. It’s getting something out of something else that people do. That, in my experience, is very powerful.
2013 was a big year for Duolingo. Are you looking to introduce new features in 2014? Or are you mostly focusing on improving current offerings?
I think we’re going to do a few more things. First of all, we’re going to have a lot more languages, all community-made, through the language incubator. We’re shooting to add about 50 languages this year. Something else that I think will happen is that we’re going to be adding a lot more of a conversational aspect to Duolingo. Right now, even though it teaches you all the language aspects, I think it’s better at teaching reading and writing than it is at teaching speaking and listening, and we need to improve that. There’s going to be a crowdsourcing component to that. We kind of know how we’re going to do that, but it’s not final.
Will you be able to monetize the conversational aspect?
We don’t know that yet. At Duolingo, we first think about what’s good for the users in terms of learning a language, and then if we can make money off [a feature], then great, if not, whatever. I think the most important thing is to have a lot of users who are learning a language.
After being named Apple's App of the Year, I saw you guys grew to around 20 million users. Do you see a lot of repeat users?
We see a lot of repeat users. Out of 20 million, we have about 8.5 million active users, who are actually using the site multiple times. So I’d say close to half are repeat users.
You mentioned that you’re looking at expanding the number of languages, and some of the most requested ones don’t use the Latin script. I grew up speaking Russian and I can see it being difficult to learn for non-natives. How do you get around the challenges that learning a new alphabet present?
It won’t be super easy. Russian is actually the one we’re probably the most advanced on. That was the first incubator course we launched a few weeks ago — learning English from Russian, and we already have around 6000 users there. Now, we are starting to work on learning Russian from English, and I think we’re going to have that one pretty soon. The main difficulty there is the alphabet, but actually Russian is not that hard. There are only about 15 letters that are different, so it’s just a matter of teaching those 15 letters, and then after that, it’s not super hard. I think it’s going to be harder for languages like Chinese that are not alphabet-based. That, I don’t know how we’re going to do yet.
In 2013, you guys announced some big contracts with CNN and Buzzfeed — how is it going on the customer side of the business? Are they happy with the partnerships?
They are, we’re going to renew both of them, which is good. And we’re probably going to announce a few other, similarly well-known, publishers pretty soon.
How many pieces do you translate for them?
We have way more capacity, but for them we’re translating something like 100 articles per day, combined.
What does a successful 2014 look like for you?
I would say, making it so that we’re by far the number one language learning tool online. We’re already the number one platform online, because we’re number one on iPhone, number one on Android, and number one on the web, so I think we’re number one. But I think we don’t dominate in that most people probably haven’t heard of Duolingo. So I think a really successful year would be one where most people you talk to on the street have heard of Duolingo, and five times as many people are using it as they are now.
Do you have any specific ideas on how to get there?
Yes, improving the product has been the plan so far and that’s what we’re going to continue doing. We spend most of our time trying to make it more engaging to users while learning a language. When we ask people why they use Duolingo, the most common answer is that it’s fun, and that it’s better for me than doing something like playing Candy Crush because at least I’m getting something out of it. I think we’re going to capitalize on that as much as we can.
Any ideas for another crowd-based company?
Not right now, I have a lot of really bad ones. (laughs) I don’t have anything that I think is worth doing. But I really am spending all of my time on Duolingo right now.