Crowdsourcing: Pros and Cons

2010 September 30

The term “crowdsourcing” always reminds me of the book title, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (which has been on my reading list for years). A Wired writer coined the term in 2006 by combining “crowd” and “outsourcing.” Wikipedia (probably the best example of crowdsourcing) defines crowdsourcing as “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd)…” These days people usually use it to describe what Wikipedia calls “crowd wisdom.”

Mark Suster’s recent post about User Generated Content on his excellent blog got me thinking about this. (I met Mark last year and have a lot of respect for him. His blog is a must-read for entrepreneurs and anyone interested in technology.) He describes the 1/9/90 rule of user-generated content, which states that most content comes from 1% of your “Power Users.” The other segments are “Casual Contributors” and “Lurkers.” Mark’s point is that trying to convert lurkers to become contributors is wasted effort. They’ll never have that level of commitment. The challenge is to increase the number of Casual Contributors. And this holds true for any web site: increasing the level of engagement of the half-committed segment can make a huge difference to your traffic and revenues.

wisdom_of_crowdsNeedless to say, the concept of tapping into collective wisdom is very popular these days. There’s no doubt that a good team usually makes better decisions than an individual. (Unless that individual is Steve Jobs.) But collective action is a double-edged sword. Democracy is a great political system but it’s unwieldy. Businesses are rarely run as democracies. As Scott Kurnit once put it: “Input, not consensus.” Otherwise: paralysis. And let’s face it—crowds can do stupid things. (Hitler anyone? W. was re-elected.) Mass hysteria can be dangerous.

One area where collective wisdom is overrated is web-based reviews, a topic I’ve written about before. Call me old school but I’d prefer one movie, book or restaurant review from a super-smart, well-informed reviewer rather than hundreds of “reviews” from people I don’t know. I may not always agree with the reviewer but I respect his/her expertise and ability to delve into the subtleties of whatever experience he’s discussing. “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Reviews written by friends carry more weight but they aren’t always the answer. A friend who shares my music tastes doesn’t necessarily have a discriminating palate and I wouldn’t trust my foodie friends’ recommendations for new music.

But if you define crowdsourcing as using the Internet as a publishing tool for the collective efforts of millions of people, it can be enormously powerful. A great example of this was the emergence of thousands of song charts on the web.

It used to be that when you needed the chords or lyrics for a song, you sat beside the turntable or tape player, pencil and paper in hand, (I know I’m dating myself here). You’d start the player then scribble furiously, pausing frequently to allow yourself to catch up, until you had a rough draft of the song. Then you’d listen a couple more times to check your work. It was frustrating because sometimes you knew you didn’t have it right. Was that a two-beat bar? What kind of altered A7 chord was that? What the hell was Dylan mumbling in the second verse? Finally you’d copy it onto a clean sheet of paper, make photocopies (usually at the office), and hand it to your band mates at the next rehearsal (or gig if you were cocky enough). Laborious, time consuming? Yes and yes.

Musicians started to post charts (or guitar tabs) on the web in the 90’s. I was thrilled. What a time saver! You could find the lyrics and chords to almost any song without having to do the work yourself. But I quickly discovered that the charts weren’t always accurate. Transcribing requires knowledge of music theory and a great ear and rock musicians rarely possess both. I got accustomed to making corrections on most of the charts I’d downloaded. Sometimes it was still easier to write my own.

AndrewRogersLast week, I found an old chart for “Let’s Stay Together” for The Mojo Soul Band, my latest music project, when I noticed “another ace 70’s tab from Andrew Rogers” at the bottom. The chords were perfect. It would have taken me hours to get right. This guy had saved me time and taught me the right chords, not just ones that were close. I wondered who this guy was and what else he had done. I Googled him and found that he had done hundreds of charts and that he was a minor celebrity among bandleaders. People appreciated his dedication, the quality of his work and his willingness to share it. Sadly, he died of leukemia in 2000. His charts were archived on Olga but it was shut down by the music industry. Here’s a link to all his charts. Here’s a short tribute. R.I.P. Andrew and thanks for your great work!

What’s the lesson? Quality still matters, editorial still matters, curation still matters. Not all contributions have equal value. And, even collectively, people don’t always get it right. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom but it’s clear that the next generation of popular web sites is going to add value by trying to give more weight to some people’s opinions over others. Klout and others have already started.

P.S. If you use WordPress to write a blog, write it in Word first. I wrote a brilliant post on this topic and lost it all when WordPress logged me out before I’d saved it. It took me hours to recreate it in this much less brilliant version. ;)

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