Thursday, December 9, 2010

What’s Crowdsourcing Useful For?

Defining “crowdsourcing” — like defining “social media” — can be a bit of a challenge. The term not only seems to have multiple meanings depending on who’s using it, but it’s also being used to define a whole new landscape of activities that didn’t exist in their current form a mere five years ago.

In its simplest form, crowdsourcing means turning to the many people outside of your own company, organization or self to do something.

Social technologies, including social networks, make it easier than ever for to bring people together, to communicate with them and to organize them, both as individuals and as a group. New sites now exist that are custom-built to help you manage crowd outreach and the processes of getting something done with many people outside of your organization.

So what is the “something” that you can do — or get done — by tapping into the crowd? Here are some categories and examples of crowdsourcing:


Utilizing the crowd for work sometimes entails “micro-labor:” small, discrete tasks broken out of a bigger project and handled by many distributed workers. Examples of crowdsourcing work sites in this vein include Samasource, CrowdFlower and Mechanical Turk. Or it could be reaching out to the crowd to collaborate on creating something such as a new company logo. Or you could reach out to a crowd to identify a single contractor to do specific work, perhaps through site like Elance.

Another example of a crowd doing “work” for you is by leveraging the knowledge of your more avid customers to provide peer-to-peer support for your new customers, with some guidance from you. A product like BearHug can help you to manage your customer service crowd. (We wrote about Bearhug in July.) Another example of getting a crowd to do work is Wikipedia where people write, edit and police the site without pay.


Polls and surveys are commonly used ways to use the crowd for input. Formal tools for getting input from the crowd include question-and-answer tools like LinkedIn Answers andFacebook Questions. These tools are similar to Yahoo! Answers, but they reach out to your own community, instead of the web population at large.

You can also turn to crowds to beta-test a website or software application, or to troubleshoot a problem. Sites such as uTest and TopCoder offer two different models of tapping into crowds of programmers. The former provides a managed community of professional programmers to run test cycles on other companies’ software products and sites, while the latter works more like a bidding site for managing online programming competitions and competitive software development. In testing situations, input becomes work and in some cases, there is compensation for that work. In other cases, programmers or others provide their input or work at no charge, often to build their portfolios and reputations.


While gathering crowds for social action is a centuries-old activity, in today’s technological interconnected world, the tools we can use to gather and manage crowds are more powerful and efficient than older ways, such as letter-writing or phone calls. Examples of such tools include SeeClickFix, or on a more global scale, One Billion Minds.

Fundraising is also an activity that has benefited from advances in technology. An application such as Facebook Causes provides individuals with a compact set of tools for reaching out to one’s Facebook friends (and their friends) for organizing, action, and fundraising. Kickstarter provides a funding platform to help individuals raise money for creative projects from others from both within and outside of their communities.

The flipside of getting something done through crowdsourcing is to be part of the crowd and doing the work or providing the input. I’ll cover that in my next post.

I’m currently writing a book about crowdsourcing, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Crowdsourcing” (Penguin, Spring 2011), so you can expect to see a few more posts on the subject here on WebWorkerDaily.

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