Back in the summer of 2006, the journalist Jeff Howe coined the term crowdsourcing to describe a new mode of production on the Internet. Howe wasn’t the first one trying to give it a name, but it was his coinage that came out on top. The teaser for his original article in Wired read: “Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.” 2006 was also the year when the idea of so called Web 2.0 gained momentum. A common claim was made that it was the individual user who would now control the Internet. The enthusiasm reached its peak when in December, Time magazine made You the Person of the Year. In the years since Howe filed his article, the actual applications of crowdsourcing, however, raise the question who really is in charge?
A crowd is other people
The last time that so much attention was given to the term crowd was in the 19th century, when Europe’s masses were pressing into the cities. Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841, is a classic example of how the crowd was seen back then. It was not until 2004 that the meaning of the term got a thorough reassessment in James Surowiecki book The Wisdom of Crowds: How the Many are Smarter than the Few. He turned the popular believe upside down by showing that under certain conditions, the crowd could actually be wise and productive. Jeff Howe then took up the idea of the productive crowd and described new business-models built on that principle online. Various business gurus followed Howe’s lead, all trying to find ways to best make use of the crowd online. Since around 2006, the usage of the term crowd has changed and it is now more popular then ever, a sought after resource — what remains is its inherent power structure: The crowd always means them, as in let them eat cake, never us as a community of peers.
Let them design logos
Today, crowdsourcing is widely used in spheres from ornithology to astronomy, from coding to design. In many fields, it is indeed a productive way to orchestrate the efforts of amateurs and professionals in order to create accumulative and generally accessible knowledge. Wikipedia is a good example of this. Things get problematic in ethical terms, however, as soon as the work of the many benefits only the few. It gets even more questionable when the same work is done a hundred-fold, when it becomes a feature of the system, that 99% of the work is unpaid and redundant and when the results of the work are neither useful for the majority of creators nor for the public. All this is usually the case with crowdsourcing in design, in particular with so called ‘logo mills’ such as CrowdSpring.com or designenlassen.de. The largest among a dozen of these platforms specialised on the crowdsourcing of logo-design is 99designs.com. The fast growing site has now more than 194,000 registered designers and has already conducted over 176,000 design contests. Typically, a client is paying $300 per logo contest, and gets on average 116 different finished designs for that money. The plattform takes off a 40% margin, leaving $180 for the one designer who, by a chance of 116 to 1, will get paid for the work. For the client, $300 is already a very low price for a logo, but for the designer, the average price comes down to less than $2 per design. What is potentially a powerful tool to coordinate the collective intelligence of a community turns out to be an even more powerful mechanism for the exploitation and waste of unpaid labour on a massive scale.
• Howe, Jeff. The Rise of Crowdsourcing. Wired, June 14, 2006.
• Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. London: Random House Business, 2009.
• Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Ware: Wordsworth Reference, 1995.
• Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few. London: Abacus, 2005.
• Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. London: Atlantic, 2008.