Late last week I pointed to a Wikipedia entry as evidence that crowdsourcing had become a bonafide neologism. A stronger argument for the term's adoption, however, is that the it's starting to appear without reference to me or the original article in Wired. I couldn't be happier with this development, but I'm also noticing that the word is being used somewhat interchangably with Yochai Benkler's concept of commons-based peer production. Mindful that language is slippery, and meaning itself largely determined by the crowd, I'm content to allow the crowd define the term for itself (in no small part because I'm powerless to stop it.) But I would be remiss if I did not play my own role in that process.
Bruce Sterling, a fellow writer at Wired and one of the biggest brains in the business, rightfully pointed out yesterday that it's a mistake to treat crowdsourcing as a synonym for peer production:
I could spend all day trying to explain how Jeff Howe's "crowdsourcing" has a different structure than "commons-based peer production." This would be no mere academic hairsplitting, either. You see, it's like mapping the mountains and finding two seams of gold. In one, a bunch of hairy-bearded *NIX prospectors are standing hip-deep in the water panning for lumps of gold, while in the other, Three Initial Corporation is data-mining vast spoilage heaps of almost-useless rubble.... I could go on. Others most certainly will.
And indeed, there's no hair-splitting about it. But before I present my definition of the term, I'd like to provide some backstory and context. In January Wired asked me to give a sort of "reporter's notebook" style presentation to some executives. I had recently been looking into common threads behind the ways advertising agencies, TV networks and newspapers were leveraging user-generated content, and picked that for my topic. Later that day I called my editor at Wired, Mark Robinson, and told him I thought there was a broader story that other journalists were missing, ie, that users weren't just making dumb-pet-trick movies, but were poised to contribute in significant and measurable ways in a disparate array of industries. Mark and I agreed that while the fact of peer production itself was becoming well-documented (witness Wired's early, and astute, take on the phenomenon, by Wired editor Thomas Goetz), no one we were aware of had documented the ways in which corporations were employing intelligent networks to put peer production to work. Our emphasis all along was on the verb, not the noun, a telling and revealing distinction.
Thus the term crowdsourcing (a term, for the record, coined jointly by Mark and myself that day, in a fit of back-and-forth wordplay). Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.
For the purposes of the article, we set even stricter parameters: We decided we would only look at case studies involving big established companies (like Getty, Viacom and P&G). For the purposes of the blog, I advocate a slightly more inclusive definition. I interpret crowdsourcing to be taking place any time a company makes a choice to employ the crowd to perform labor that could alternatively be performed by an assigned group of employees or contractors, even if the company is just now putting up a shingle. In other words, crowdsourcing need not require an active shift from current employees (or again, contractors) to the crowd; it can start with the crowd.
Finally, a note on provenance: As has been rightfully pointed out, Crowdsourcing owes a debt to James Surowiecki's eye-opening and entertaining book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But as Suowiecki himself notes in that book, we both owe a further debt to Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a work from the early Victorian era that should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject.