Crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly popular, and it's spreading through the Internet like mold on an expired piece of bread: new platforms are emerging all around the world, success stories are told every day, and it's even starting to get some legislative support.
However, in spite of its growing in popularity, the concept of crowdsourcing is also growing in confusion. Is Delicious crowdsourcing? What about YouTube? And what about Wikipedia? The answer depends on whom you ask.
This confusion is mainly due to two reasons: 1, the lack of a clear and concise definition of what crowdsourcing is, and 2, the mis-identification of crowdsourcing with other phenomena.
These two problems must be resolved so we can all discern and distinguish what is crowdsourcing and what it is not.
The definition problem
Many claim that Jeff Howe's crowdsourcing definition is more than enough. However, research I conducted a few months ago points in a different direction.
In this research, a colleague and I looked for different definitions of crowdsourcing in a total of 209 documents about crowdsourcing. These documents were journal articles, master's theses, chapters of books, conference proceedings, etc.
At the end of the research, we found more than 40 different definitions of crowdsourcing. Howe's, Brabham's, and Wikipedia's definitions were the most used.
From this investigation, using all of the definitions analyzed, we developed a new crowdsourcing definition (it's available in the crowdsourcing Wikipedia article). It is a much broader definition that tries to capture the phenomenon of crowdsourcing completely. Obviously, it's not a definitive definition, but it's taking a first step towards one that could be.
Crowdsourcing and other phenomena
Another reason leading to confusion is the identification of crowdsourcing with other phenomena like collective intelligence, open innovation, user-innovation, and outsourcing.
Is collective intelligence the same thing as crowdsourcing? What relationship exists between open innovation and crowdsourcing? Are all cases of crowdsourcing an example of outsourcing? And what about co-creation?
With all these terms, crowdsourcing has some kind of concrete relationship and feeds from them all. However, in my humble opinion, it fails to fully identify with any of them in an unambiguous and complete way.
For example, crowdsourcing is a type of collective intelligence activity with its own peculiarities. These peculiarities are what make not every case of collective intelligence an example of crowdsourcing (i.e. Delicious). With open innovation, crowdsourcing is a way of implementing it.
All of these relationships must be clearly identified in order to avoid misunderstandings and to allow us to take a common position with regards to crowdsourcing.
The consequence of this confusion about crowdsourcing is the lack of a background in theory. This theoretical background is necessary to enable us all to walk in the same direction.
This will prevent situations like the one that happens with Wikipedia, in which some present it as a paradigmatic case of crowdsourcing, while others expose just the opposite.
It is important that researchers and those who use it in real life join efforts to reach a clear, concise and unique crowdsourcing definition, distinguishing the concept from any other.