As I talk with an increasing number of people about crowdsourcing, I continue to hear it referred to as an industry. Crowdsourcing is not an industry. I never cared too much to say anything about it until I started to see people claiming to know about crowdsourcing calling it an industry. The Daily Crowdsource takes pride in our centralized position in this space, so we feel the responsibility rests with us to correct common mistakes we see (and have an ability to influence). As crowdsourcing grows, Daily Crowdsource will continue to fix and correct these problems as often as we can.
Why crowdsourcing is not an industry
Crowdsourcing is not an industry because there are no companies that produce crowds (hospitals and midwives don’t count). An industry is a sector of an economy that produces a certain good or related goods – clearly this is not an accurate description of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing doesn’t manufacture one single product, but rather it’s a management process stuffed into current systems to enhance the output of various products.
To get the pulse of crowdsourcing, we pulled in several leaders to offer their insights. Tomorrow, Clickworker CEO, Wolfgang Kitza, will be posting a follow up discussion on his new blog, WOLFblog.
This topic first came to light during a discussion with uTest CMO, Matt Johnston, who adamantly claims “Crowdsourcing is not an industry. Trada is not a crowdsourcing company. It’s a marketing company that utilizes crowdsourcing.” Johnston adds, “Customers don’t care how we solve their problems. The same is true for Microtask, Genius Rocket, and Lingotek.”
I give a lot of credit to Matt for being the first to face this problem head on. Johnston puts the final nail in the coffin by stating, “We are all in different industries, otherwise we wouldn’t be sharing information.”
It’s natural for people to mistakenly place all crowdsourcing platforms, services, and initiatives under the umbrella of one overarching industry due to the concept’s relatively young age and explosive growth. Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, has an interesting take on the subject. Rogers likens crowdsourcing to the early days of the web. He says that in the early stages, explosive concepts like the web feel like an industry because you are studying how valuable that tool is to everybody. These factors have combined to create an extremely strong community that binds those involved with the crowdsourcing phenomenon together. It becomes difficult, for people to separate the community from the idea that binds that community together, and thus the crowdsourcing “industry” is born.
I asked David Alan Grier, a scholar, Crowd Leader, and an expert in industry (IEEE VP and Presidential Candidate), if he thinks crowdsourcing is an industry. His response, “Not yet. The field is too immature.” Grier points out that there are currently a lot of companies and ideas, with very little in common, gathering around a common word. Grier continues by asking, and answering, if crowdsourcing will ever become an industry.
Will crowdsourcing become an industry?
Grier responds that crowdsourcing is really a form of industrial production, a means of organizing people, machines, and ideas to create goods and services. As such, it will find a place in a number of different industries.
Over the past several months, Grier & I have discussed the building of an official “taxonomy” for crowdsourcing. Grier’s industry experience has proven valuable in helping identify the need for a unification and organization of this space. Grier identifies crowdsourcing will probably take about three or four different forms, which can produce the preliminary “taxonomy” of this field (Grier briefly shares them here, however, an official post on this matter will follow). The first will be the marketing of high level skills. This form resembles the current markets for contracting except that that it is conducted over the Internet.
The second form are contests in which people post a specification on the web and ask for proposals. As with the first form, this is nothing new, though it does have an interesting connection to public opinion research.
The third are the microtasks that are commonly associated with Amazon Turk. This mode will likely develop into a common form of production that will likely support an industry in much the same way that Software as a Service has become a cloud computing industry. This form of crowdsourcing requires a specialized skill and will create a specialized industry.
The fourth invokes the idea of crowd collaboration, which includes things such as Wikipedia and many other activities. We will likely see interesting examples of this form develop on the net but we cannot easily see where this field is headed or if it has a viable economic future.
Crowdsourcing is not an industry. So what is it?
Crowdsourcing is a work process that spans across different industries.
Matt continues, “Crowdsourcing is a model, just like outsourcing, just like nearshore, just like offshore. uTest is not a crowdsourcing company it’s a software testing company. Our customers don’t care if we have 40,000 employees or community members as long as the job gets done.”
Crowdsourcing is a way to leverage the power of many in solving the problems of one. Grier believes that crowdsourcing will eventually find a permanent place in several different industries. For now, some people use it to create logo designs for their clients while others will use it to unravel the mysteries of science or provide timely disaster relief. The key point in this formulation is that crowdsourcing is not a product in and of itself, but a highly versatile tool.
So, why does it matter what we call it?
This is an important question to consider because it gets to the heart of the true problem: Crowdsourcing is misunderstood. People opposed to the unorthodox approach that crowdsourcing represents are constantly bemoaning the “low quality and unfair practices” of the so-called “crowdsourcing industry.” In continuing to refer to crowdsourcing as an industry we make it easier for these people to lump legitimate companies that use crowdsourcing as a means to deliver quality and choices to their clients with those looking to make a quick buck by exploiting their users. If we stop calling crowdsourcing an industry we create an important distinction between the tool itself and the potential it holds.
When someone calls crowdsourcing an industry, it begs the question, “Do you really know what you’re talking about?” I often see bloggers discussing this new “crowdsourcing industry,” and I appreciate their attempts to digest it. But seeing veterans, companies, or even an “industry website” causes me to feel bad for the state of leadership in this field. Just Google “crowdsourcing industry” to find a number of misinformed site owners.
What do you see for the future?
It’s important to be purposeful about this field we are building because if something is repeated enough times, people may begin to believe it.
A number of firms will try a number of ideas. Some will work and generate value that can be captured. Some will not. We’ll have a much better sense in 12 to 18 months than we do now.
What do you think?
Is there a better way to refer to the crowdsourcing world? Wolfgang Kitza and I will be discussing this topic at length over the next couple weeks on the WOLFblog and Daily Crowdsource. We’ll be incorporating your comments in this crowdsourcing forum thread. We encourage you to chime in & tell us what you think.