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The wisdom (and danger) of crowds

   /   Apr 19th, 2010News

These days, there’s no shortage of buzz about the power of crowds. The idea that wired masses can be harnessed to accomplish tasks that even large organizations could never handle is very attractive. Groups now invite supporters to do such things as help select grant recipients, name landmarks, or, in the case of The Extraordinaries, complete microtasks, like tagging photos and mapping data points. Crowdsourcing is an inherently inclusive approach and it allows organizations to engage throngs of aficionados. However, it has its pitfalls.

It’s difficult for web-based organizations to screen crowd-sourced helpers. The result is often a glut of subpar work. Then, there’s the issue of accountability. Without a contract, set hours or direct supervision, volunteer tasks tend to be low-priority. Most worrisome of all is the risk of malice and mischief.

Making a project open-source and participatory is a great way to attract diverse groups of people and ideas. It’s also a great way to get hacked, as Wikipedia knows all too well. The corruption of data would be problematic for any organization, but it is disastrous for those whose projects are used in crisis situations where lives are at stake.

Fortunately, most of the potential risks and drawbacks of crowdsourcing can be managed. Organizations can be selective about which projects – or parts of projects – to crowdsource (NASA, we’re looking at you), and can develop simple screening processes (online questionnaires, for example) to select virtual volunteers for more sophisticated tasks.

With hundreds of millions of new people coming online through the distribution of cellphones and handheld computing, crowdsourcing will continue to expand globally. It’s worth watching closely where it works and where it doesn’t.

If you have come across creative or problematic models of crowdsourcing, please let us know.

Photo: MatthewJamesTaylor

5 Responses

  1. ben says:

    Thanks for the mention of The Extraordinaries (www.beextra.org). Great topic – and absolutely a problem in the field. We’ve been working lately with a ratings system that allows the crowd to do the work of filtering out the bad content and up the great content. I think that’s preferable to a “vetting” process prior to participation b/c it keeps the barrier to entry low and allows someone to experiment before making a longer/more intensive commitment. And I do think that filling out a form with personal information is indeed a commitment.

  2. Emily Spivack says:

    Hi Ben- Thanks for your thoughts! Please keep us posted about how The Extraordinaries is building its vetting system to filter through its content while continuing to make it easy for people to participate in the process. Seems like like a smart approach.

  3. [...] talked about the potential (and potential pitfalls) of crowdsourcing in previous posts. Today, we’ll look at ColaLife, a remarkable example of the power of online collaboration to [...]

  4. Boyd Neil says:

    I would also give some thought to ways to encourage other members of the “crowd” to mediate quality and manage obstructionist online behavior.

  5. Michel says:

    good solutions, this is what I called brilliant

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