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Why I Love Crowdsourcing (the Concept) and Hate Crowdsourcing (the Term)

Why I Love Crowdsourcing (the Concept) and Hate Crowdsourcing (the Term)

Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from one of our contributing experts, Panos Ipeirotis, an Associate Professor and George A. Kellner Faculty Fellow at the Department of Information, Operations, and Management Sciences at Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University. This post appeared originally on his blog and is re-posted here with permission.

The term crowdsourcing is in fashion. It is being used to describe pretty much everything under the sun today.

Unfortunately, the word crowdsourcing is also getting increasingly associated with "getting things done for free," or at least at ultra-cheap prices. The "crowd" will generate the content for the website. The "crowd" will fix the mistakes. The "crowd" will do everything, and preferably for "points," for "badges," for a spot on the leaderboard, or maybe for a few pennies if we end up using Mechanical Turk.

But this association of the term crowdsourcing with low cost labor is now visibly turning people off. Everybody wants to "use" the crowd, but the workers in the crowd feel stiffed. The NoSpec movement was an early warning. The angry tone of some of the threads in Turker Nation is also an indication that many workers are not very happy with the way that they are treated by some requesters.

However, these negative associations are now endangering a very important concept: the idea that we can structure tasks in a way that are robust to the presence of imperfect workers, and that anyone can participate, as long as there is work available. Well-structured tasks allow the on-the-task evaluation of the workers, and can automatically infer whether someone is a good fit for a task or not.

This is not insignificant. It is well-known that one of the biggest barriers for breaking into the workforce is to have prior relevant experience. Students today often beg to get unpaid internships, just to have in their resume the lines with the coveted work experience. In online labor markers, newcomers often bid lower than what they would accept normally, just to build their feedback history. Crowdsourcing can change that.

But as long as crowdsourcing gets associated with low wages, nobody will see the real benefit: that work is within reach, immediately. That someone can experiment with different types of work easily (stock trading? product design?).

Perhaps a new term can describe better the true value of crowdsourcing, and also get the stigmatizing term "crowd" out of the name. (Nobody wants to be part of a "crowd.")

Personally, I favor the term "open work." As in the case of "open access" and "open source software," it describes the opportunity to access work, without barriers. I also like the "fair trade work" motto from MobileWorks but this is more closely connected to work being offered to developing countries. But I think that "open work" captures better the essence of the advantages behind crowdsourcing.

Update: The term open is indeed also associated with free-as-in-beer consumption. However, open can refer both to the supply-side (production) and the demand-side (consumption). For example:

    • Linux is open, in the sense that anyone can take the source code, modify it, and contribute back (open production); open source software is also available, often, for free, for installation to any machine (open consumption).
    • In publishing, open access typically means accessing papers without paying (open consumption), but there are also journals (e.g., PLoS ONE) that accept pretty much any technically-valid paper (open production).

In the case of crowdsourcing, "open work" would refer mainly to the open production side. As in the production side of open source, and open access publishing, it does not mean that the participants are not paid for the generation of the artifacts.

What do you think?

- Panos Ipeirotis is an Associate Professor and George A. Kellner Faculty Fellow at the Department of Information, Operations, and Management Sciences at Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University. He is also the Chief Scientist at Tagasauris, and in 2012-2013 serves as “academic-in-residence” at oDesk Research. His recent research interests focus on crowdsourcing and on mining user-generated content on the Internet. He received his Ph.D. degree in Computer Science from Columbia University in 2004, working with Prof. Luis Gravano. He has received three “Best Paper” awards (IEEE ICDE 2005, ACM SIGMOD 2006, WWW 2011), two “Best Paper Runner Up” awards (JCDL 2002, ACM KDD 2008), and is also a recipient of a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and several other industry grants. In his spare time, he writes about crowdsourcing and various other topics on his blog, “A Computer Scientist in a Business School,” an activity that seems to generate more interest and recognition than any of the above.

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  • Guest Jana Rademacher Dec 03, 2012 03:07 pm GMT

    I think you are absolutely right with your assessment of the situation. But just changing the name will make no difference if the attitude of the ones "using" the crowd do not change. The term "open" does sound much more friendly and welcoming. It also captures the essential idea of crowdsourcing: Everyone should have access to it. in that line I would like to point out the UNICEF Innovation Platform. An open platform where ideas for better child care and the improvement of health standards are crowd sourced. UNICEF being a non-profit organisation it is obviously unpaid, but the open innovation platform is a good example for a more image friendly approach to crowdsourcing. You can read more about the platform on our blog:

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