23 March 2009

Crowdsourcing Dilemma

OK, as promised... a little more than a year ago, here is my article about crowdsourcing:

It has taken much reflection and weighing in on the debate to arrive at my stance on the subject. I will do my best to explain the two sides and why I've sat on the fence for so long before falling off.

For those of you that are not part of the in crowd:
"Crowdsourcing is a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm, or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data."

What's ironic is that the definition above was derived of crowdsource labour, from one of the most well-known crowdsourcing projects online, known as Wikipedia). I first heard the term in 2007 while working on a project with Hewlett-Packard and VoodooPC. I was intrigued, fascinated and disgusted by it... but still thought it was totally hot.

So, why has it taken me the better part of two years to formulate an opinion on the matter? Well, I guess it's because the whole idea of crowdsourcing is pretty sexy and has a lot of positive attributes, so many that it can't help but strike at the heart of an idealist like myself.

You see, when you scratch the surface of crowdsourcing, you see collaboration, alliance, cooperation, association, collusion, joint effort, participation, teamwork & working together... all for a common goal. It's very Star Trek like in it's altruism. Even when you dig deeper, everything looks rosy. But, there is a dark side, but not always - and herein lies the dilemma.

The good side has a bad side and vice versa, but a la Star Wars VI... there's still some good in you father.

So, what we have on the other side, the dark side to this utopia of getting things done is unpaid labour, unrewarded, unsalaried and uncompensated workers. Sounds like more of an untopia to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not all about the money, but money does let you reinvest in your creative team and infrastructure for the next project. Now the dark side has some redeeming points too. What are the redeeming points? Well, businesses can get unpaid labour... etc., etc., ...but there's also the idea that you can get the best ideas/solutions put forward by having a large number of people work on an issue, problem or challenge.

Some companies have gone to great lengths to protect participants intellectual property and compensate 'winners' in their crowdsourcing. One such company is Idea Bounty. The premise here is that a company comes forward with a brief or challenge and a bounty (some cold hard cash, dead presidents, moola) and offers it up to the best creative idea for their product/service/brand. What is currently running on their site is a contest for Red Bull - come up with the best new consumption ritual and you win $5000. Kudos to this group - they have done a very good job of making this whole practice look respectable.

Cool, eh? No. Not really.

Aside from hundreds or maybe thousands of people contributing their intellectual offerings free of charge, what's wrong with this picture? Well aside from the obvious pitfalls of cherry picking and going with the idea the client thinks is the best, the client foregos the consultation, debate and counsel that a creative professional may bring to the table. One of the past winners on this site won $3000 for an idea he put forth for use by BMW. So, he got bragging rights, and a few thousand dollars and the client walks away with an idea that could make them millions of dollars in profit. Doesn't sound all that bad, now does it? But what about the guy that came in second? Third? ...etc. Did they not contribute good ideas as well? Were their ideas worth $3000 less? Anyone worth anything in the creative field is surely not going to stoop to this level of chance - the client will receive second rate ideas from third rate contestants, heck, let's call it Creative Idol, and the client plays Simon.

To illustrate this point, let's take my front lawn as an example, it is dissected perfectly in half by my sidewalk with two equal halves of lawn and garden to be landscaped. How would it sound if I got a different landscape company to landscape each side of my lawn with the promise that I will pay the one that I felt did the best job at the end of the day? Do you think I will get the best landscapers out to my property to try to get this 'job'? I think not. When the last grass blade has been cut and it's time to pick the 'lucky' recipient of a pay check, I would be forced to pick the better of two lousy jobs.

It's hard to criticize this practice without recognizing the positive benefits to the company holding the bag of loot, the contest holder - for they have little to lose and at times, a lot to gain. But this is exactly why it has been so hard to come to my realization that this practice, in the 'commercial' sense is just plain wrong. It does nothing to further industry, education, morale, or growth, in the end, it does nothing but award individual effort in a one-time setting. A hero for the day, and a bum the next.

PS - Wikipedia, although a crowdsourcing initiative in my belief, is not of the commercial variety and therefore holds true (for the most part) of what crowdsourcing should be limited to; the growth and development of ideas for the common good, not for Red Bull.

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Blogger Ryan said...

The theme of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker being redeemable wasn't touched on until Return of the Jedi, the sixth chapter. Geez.

3/24/2009 07:46:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin Franco said...

...and crowdsourcing works in correcting blogs too! Thanks! I've made the correction... I forgot that part was in the Ewok adventure.

3/24/2009 08:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Matt @ ideabounty said...

Hey Kevin.
I've read your post with great interest. Thanks for covering both sides of the debate (and for mentioning Idea Bounty). We carefully considered the negatives associated with spec work, and have developed Idea Bounty with these in mind.
We have put together a little post on our stance - I hope you'll check it out. Thanks again for weighing into the debate. http://www.ideabounty.com/blog/post/2070/is-crowdsourcing-evil

3/25/2009 02:38:00 AM  

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