Some Thoughts on Crowdsourcing

If there’s a task you need to get done, there’s plenty of ways to go about completing it nowadays, each with their own pros and cons. You can do the task yourself, although you’ll need to know how to do whatever it is, and do so well enough to achieve your desired goal. You can pass the task along to your workers, although this requires that you have, you know, workers. You can outsource your task, although depending on where and how you outsource it, you can end up making more work for yourself overall.

More recently, you could try crowdsourcing. What is that, you ask? The basic concept is essentially outsourcing, but rather than passing along the task to a defined paid group (whether that group is domestic or foreign), you put the task out in front of an unspecified group, out of which one or more individuals provide the solution to the task required. By doing so, you can either get a great number of people to contribute a tiny portion of your task until it is completed, or find people who are able to meet the requirements of your task without having to go through the process of finding, hiring, and employing them.

 

Probably not this crowd, but a crowd nonetheless

There’s numerous possibilities for crowdsourcing currently in practice. One example is microwork, having people do work that is too sophisticated for computers to handle (or that they simply refuse to do while they are plotting their domination of the planet), much as is done on Amazon Mechanical Turk and similar services. There are also inducement prize contests, where prizes are offered for the person or group who can achieve certain, usually technical, goals. The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has used this method several times in the past, and is still trying to use it to develop a driverless car, among other goals. There are several other options, as well, such as splitting funding of high-priced tasks into numerous tiny portions (which I’ll cover in the future).

Why Crowdsource?

If you find yourself with a major task that you need to complete, whether for yourself, your company, or a client, you might wonder why you should even consider opting for crowdsourcing rather than one of the other methods of getting your task completed that were discussed above. One of the primary advantages of crowdsourcing is that you can accomplish your goal while spending much less money than you would pay an individual or small group to do the work. If you can break your project up into small tasks, you might be able to use a microwork service to get everything done for a few dollars per task, or you can offer a single large (or larger) prize to the best entrant and get numerous offerings.

You’ll also save yourself a lot of trouble in the development stages. Rather than having to hire people for every step of the process, you can put out an offering for the best, say, advertisement for a given product, and if you provide a reasonable reward, you’ll get plenty of offerings, without any need to have find the workers yourself. It’ll simply be a matter of setting the rules, putting up your reward, and getting the ball rolling on the publicity.

Speaking of which, there are far worse ways to hire someone for a job than to hold a nation-wide (or even world-wide) contest, get lots of attention from all types of media, and know that the winner of your audition contest is one of the best people in your desired field. (Almost sounds like an idea for a TV show or something.) With an impressive enough reward, you won’t even have to do much in the way of advertising, as plenty of news agencies will be happy to spread news of a six-figure prize for many tasks.

If you’re thinking of joining a crowdsourcing group, you can probably guess many of the pros from your angle, as well. There’s the money, of course; things like Amazon Mechanical Turk can provide some money (if not very impressive amounts), and of course, there are plenty of impressive prizes out there, if you have the needed talents. If you shoot for a prize, you have the potential of getting not only the money, but impressing the company offering that money with your talent and maybe even picking up a nice job out the deal.

The Downside of Crowdsourcing

Let’s not mince words: As with anything in this world, there are possible downsides to using crowdsourcing. If you opt to use a contest to complete your task, you face some potential challenges. To start with, while having the entire world looking in as you make your ad (or find your new singer, or complete whatever task you decide to leave open to the crowd) might seem wonderfully self-promotional, it can leave you in a position where competitors can sweep in and steal your winning idea (or worse, your winning idea-creator).

You can also find your task being thrown off your desired course, particularly if you give too much power to the crowd to help decide the winning entry. It doesn’t take too much for a few jokers (with a few hundred friends) to turn completely useless suggestions into the top offerings. Let’s not even discuss what can happen when a late-night TV host decides he’d like a space shuttle named after him

Things aren’t too much better with microwork crowdsourcing work. If you offer small amounts of money for tiny jobs, you’re likely to get more than a few people who do crummy jobs on your tasks, in order to do many of them in the shortest time possible. You can end up generating so many crummy ideas that you end up spending much more time going through the suggestions than you would have by doing the task yourself.

Why Bring This Up?

I thought I’d raise this whole concept for a few reasons. First, it’s kind of an interesting concept, one that has gone from extremely rare to downright common with the rise of the Internet (almost like, say, people being able to draw an audience and make a living by writing about their opinions every day). Second, it’s only likely to become even more common, as it becomes easier and easier to put up a few ads or create a Mechanical Turk account and find yourself with all the information you need (and then some). Finally, as I mentioned, there are ways to make money by participating in crowdsourcing activities, and I find myself at a time where making money, by any means possible, is something I want to consider.

So, that’s crowdsourcing in a nutshell. Do you think it’s a reasonable plan to put some of your tasks out in front of the crowd? Have you tried joining the crowd through things like Mechanical Turk or Inducement Prize Contests? Is crowdsourcing the way of the future?

Crowd Picture courtesy of Karen O’D

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