Justice by Slavery? The meanings of crowdsourcing  8.12.09

There are several concepts, partly overlapping, partly different, that are used to describe phenomena that seem to be somewhat similar if not the same: social production, peer production, crowdsourcing, or collaboration. As so often with buzzwords, theses concepts are, if at all, vaguely defined. Take crowdsourcing. Columnists and researchers use it it such different ways, that the definitions in certain aspects are diametric.

Dan Woods had an intersting column on the “Myth of Crowdsourcing” on Forbes online the other day. Best quotes:

“There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. … The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.”

“There is no crowd of open-source developers ready to attack every problem. ”

“without the virtuoso contribution at the outset, they would achieve nothing.”

“Does crowdsourcing exist as it is popularly conceived? Yes, it does, but it doesn’t have anything to do with innovation. …The other businesses mentioned in the crowdsourcing category… are really versions of Wikipedia, that is, aggregations of the inventions of individual virtuosos”

“[crowdsourcing should be conceptualized as] broadcast search.”

In short: Only virtuosos innovate, not crowds; crowds can’t solve anything; virtuosos steer the crowd. Dan Woods concludes that crowdsourcing is not about creating collective intelligence and labour force that would unite in creating new things. Crowdsourcing would not create collective intelligence and not result in mass co-creation. Following Wood’s ideas, crowdsourcing is a mode of production, and as such it combines elements of Taylorism (splitting up working packages into small chunks like in Mechanical Turk) with a tender technique often used by creative buyers: let the service provider first show what their solution would look like and then decide whether it’s fine for you and worth some of your money. Jeff Howe uses the name ‘open call’ for this. It’s open neither the caller, nor the called are obligated to anything. The called is free to answer, the caller is free to accept the answer. Reading Jeff Howe’s crowdsourcing blog, you can easily get the impression that he touts crowdsourcing as a way to get out of the recession. But at what price? Brabham has the answer: “Proportionately, the amount of money paid to the crowd for high quality labor relative to the amount that labor is worth in the market resembles a slave economy.” {Brabham 2008@83}

Surprisingly, Brabham is very optimistic about the civilizing potentials of crowdsourcing. “I am eager to see us learn from the successes and mistakes of crowdsourcing so that we can apply the best principles to the non-profit world and in the fight for social and environmental justice. ” {Brabham 2008@87} Never underestimate scientists’ ingenuity. They can turn nuclear energy into an ecological blessing, advanced interrogation techniques into a humanitarian act and and war into a means for creating peace. But, please, using a “slave economy” technique as an instrument to “fight for social…justice”? Well, Brabham defines crowdsourcing as a two-pronged concept: “Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem solving and production model already in use by for–profit organizations such as Threadless, iStockphoto, and InnoCentive.” {Brabham 2008a} The key word here is: “problem solving”.

Brabham draws on theory (idea? modes?) of the “Wisdom of Crowds”, which basically states that ‘under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them’ (Surowiecki, quoted by Brabham 2008). The new web-based knowledge communities and their knowledge culture would alter the operational modes of commodity culture. “Thus, there may be an immense amount of good that can come from the existing for-profit crowdsourcing applications in that we may be able to harness the intelligence-aggregating engine of the crowdsourcing model to blend commodity culture with social justice goals.” {Brabham 2008@80} There is a point.

But anyway. It’s not so much the social aspects that raised my interest in Brabham’s article and crowdsourcing. It’s rather the mix of centrality and decentrality, voluntary engagement and exploitation, individuals and masses, openness and propertization.

Brabham considers the crowdsourcing model as way to overcome limits and restrictions of the open source production model, for better or worse. The latter is characterized by “transparency and access in the design stage”, freedom from intellectual property law constraints, openness brings in new creative ideas, contributors donate labour for self-interested motivations (feel-good rewards, increasing social-capital, fun in problem-solving), ownership of production factors by contributors, non-proprietability of production results. {Brabham 2008@82} The hacker ethic, or better: hacker’s hypothesis is that the output in such collaborative open environments is superior to others and socially favourable.

The applicability of the open source model is however limited when it comes to the production of goods other than software, goods which require material pre-products with a price and physical production facilities. In the end, even the creativity of contributing social producers depends on pre-production goods with a price tag, at least those necessary for his or her personal subsistence.

Kazman/Chen use the term crowdsourcing in just this two-pronged way. A rather useless way of conceptualizing crowdsourcing is to define it as a synonym to commons-based peer production. Kazman/Chen use this definition in an article on the rather interesting “Metropolis Model”, which they conceive as a sucessor of for software-development models such as agile development, Rational Unified Process or waterfall model. “Crowdsourcing—the popular term for commons-based peer production—is used to create value in information technology, the arts, basic research, and retail business.” {Kazman 2009} I will discuss commons-based peer production in another blog entry. But for now: It is rather sloppy to define “crowdsourcing” as a production technique for proprietary services with the words “commons-based”. For Kazman/Chen, co-creation, crowdsourcing, commons-based peer production, community-based service seem to be synonyms. That certainly is a conceptual mess: “Examples of co-creation have emerged, from OSS to Wikipedia, Facebook, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and many other community-based service systems (CBSSs). Each is a complex software-intensive or software-enabled system co-created by its participants—the crowds.” {Kazman 2009@77}

Summing up, there are at least three different definitions of crowdsourcing used by scientists and journalists: In the first, narrow sense, crowdsourcing refers to a mode of production (or problem solving) in which — following Howe — a central firm harnesses selected contributions from individuals who respond to an open call for proposals. In a second, slightly wider sense, crowdsourcing doesn’t only call for individual proposals, but also includes self-organized collaboration amongst individuals of the crowd. Both definitions assume the propertization of the contributions of the called by the central organisational firm or actor, while the latter also assumes that collaborating individuals can produce more innovative results than the ingenious virtuoso. A third definition, the widest one, equals crowdsourcing to commons-based peer production. This definition however would almost level the conceptual differences between crowdsourcing and open source-like production modes. (More on that in subsequent posting.) The crucial differentiator to open source models is that the crowd’s product can be appropriated. Commons-based peer production-like crowdsouring would resemble something like software produced with an GPL libraries in an open-source way, but licensed with a Microsoft EULA.


Here’s a preliminary scheme of production modes (I’ve left out crowdsourcing III, i.e. commons-based peer production-like crowdsourcing, as it doesn’t make sense at all.)

open source crowdsourcing I crowdsourcing II
ownership of preproduct free or owned by contributor free or owned by contributor free or owned by contributor
contributors individuals aggregating and integrating their works; collaborating virtual teams atomized individuals, virtuosos; individuals selected out of large groups collaborating individuals or groups, collective intelligence
motivation of contributors feel-good rewards, increasing social-capital, fun in problem-solving money, social reputation, learning, feel-good social reputation, learning, feel-good, money (in non-social projects)
ownership of contribution complex coordinating firm coordinating firm (?)
right of utilization everyone (GPL) crowdsourcing central unit (transferred from contributor) crowdsourcing central unit; type III: GPL, open source (?)
network-model network star-shaped (economically), with links (socially) star-shaped, with links
mode of governance self-governance by project members; influence by large private stakeholders firm; market; aspects of social networks firm; market (?); aspects of social networks
examples Linux, Apache, etc. Mechanical Turk political campaigning
payment for contributors none from central to contributor (sub-average) from central to contributor (sub-average); not in social projects



Brabham, D C. “Crowdsourcing As a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases.” Convergence 14, no. 1 (2008): doi:10.1177/1354856507084420. http://con.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/14/1/75.

Brabham, D C. “Moving the Crowd at Istockphoto: The Composition of the Crowd and Motivations for Participation in a Crowdsourcing Application.” First Monday 13, no. 6 (2008): 1-22. http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2159/1969.

Howe, J. “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” Wired Magazine 14, no. 6 (2006): 1-4. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds_pr.html

Kazman, R, and H M Chen. “The Metropolis Model a New Logic for Development of Crowdsourced Systems.” Communications of the ACM 52, no. 7 (2009): 76-84. http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1538788.1538808

more magazine articles on Crowdsourcing: http://crowdsourcingexamples.pbworks.com/Acknowledgements-and-Sources

Wired’s series on Crowds: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2007/07/assignment_zero_all

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