About Me

Crowdsourcing: A Definition

  • I like to use two definitions for crowdsourcing:

    The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

    The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

The Rise of Crowdsourcing

  • Read the original article about crowdsourcing, published in the June, 2006 issue of Wired Magazine.
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« Get Published (in my book) | Main | Chapter Two: Rise of the Amateur, Continued »

January 23, 2008


Joshua McKenty


Here's the obvious criticism - experts are part of the crowd, too. While I agree that it's the rise of the spirit of amateurism that's made crowdsourcing so effective, looking at projects such as "Idea Crossing", "Innocentive", or even the open-source movement that you reference above, all lean heavily on their power to find the best expert in the crowd.

You might also want to highlight more prominently the number of photographers - (22!) shooting a single event. This is yet another classic facet of crowdsourcing - the seemingly magical power of large numbers.

On a positive note, I think presenting these concepts through a series of stories is a beautiful approach, and I hope to see more of that throughout the book.

Finally, although I didn't see it mentioned in the outline, are you going to spare some pages for a brief mention of the various "crowdfunding" efforts? I've made arguments before on the validity of these as part of the field.

A great kickoff - I'm looking forward to more.


Joshua McKenty


All right Jeff, great chapter. The temp here is Chicago is minus 15 F, one day to be glad to have A Beautiful Day (Under the Florescent Lights!)

A couple of comments:

“Money, it has become clear, isn’t the only, or even the most important incentive driving the explosive creative output that one finds on the Internet.”
Hard to say where the importance level might be regarding the almighty dollar and explosive creative output on the internet. I suspect that the collision between a naturally tech savvy generation and the availability of a “feel right” medium might be closer to the mark!

“Kodak Instamatic started putting portrait photographers out of business.”
With more than 50 million Instamatic Cameras produced by 1970 I am surprised that the pro’s where not jumping off of rooftops and out of windows!
As of April 2005 there were in excess of 50 million blogs. Are news papers going to go the way of portrait photographers, out of vogue!

“PLUG celebrates everything that’s best about amateurism—authenticity, spirit, passion and perhaps most of all, a well-developed sense of humor about its own humble place in the world.” A great sentence and great marker on the journey to world domination by the rise of amateurs!



How about crowdfundig? Check out A bunch of students using ChipIn raised over $23,000 in a few days from a bunch of small donations to set up an alternative to their official commencement address by Dick Cheney.


What globalisation is doing at the macro level to create new industrial powerhouses, crowdsourcing is fuelling at the micro level for services industries. By opening up opportunities to bypass traditional barriers-to-entry, crowdsourcing services such as iStockPhoto are levelling the playing field by giving both amateurs and professionals equal means for reaping financial benefit from their tacit abilities.

Daren C. Brabham

Good stuff, Jeff. Well-written and engaging, even if I do take aim at some of your claims :-)

Concerning the book as a whole, I think the claims about 1) the crowd being comprised of amateurs, 2) the importance of community at crowdsourcing sites, and 3) crowdsourcing’s roots in the open source movement should be cautiously crafted.

First, the amateurism assumption. I don't disagree that perhaps a majority of the iStockers at iStockphoto are technically amateurs in the sense that they probably had not, and maybe never would have, made money from their photographic efforts without the mechanism of iStockphoto. But cases like InnoCentive, where a brief glance at the winners' gallery shows a lot of Ph.D.s, make it seem like the crowd is more expert than amateur (as was said above). To split hairs a bit, Karim Lakhani et al. (2007) found that many of the winners at InnoCentive were winning challenges outside of the scope of their expertise. So, while they all have advanced science degrees, the materials engineers aren't winning the materials engineering challenges. Instead, the biologists are. It's a testament to the magic of interdisciplinarity to solve problems more than it is a testament to the magic of amateur vision.

A study I recently completed (Brabham, 2008b) found that iStockers consider themselves professionals, and the average iStocker has had multi-year experience in formal artistic training, as well as multi-year experience in both paid and unpaid creative work. This is to say that we should be careful about how we talk about professionalism and amateurism. I think these terms are far muddier than we assume, and perhaps we can think of it as a pro-am spectrum. If we define amateurism by a lack of professional training or professional experience, then the crowd at iStockphoto, at InnoCentive, and at other crowdsourcing sites is certainly not that amateurish. If we define amateurism by if and how much people are paid for their crowdsourcing work, then the pro-am spectrum is further complicated. Think, for example, of the doctor who makes a ton of money at iStock. Is she likely to ever view her photography work as “professionally” as her medical practice? Money may not be the best measure of professionalism, either. I think one of Jeff’s interesting implicit commentaries about the crowd is that we have begun to adopt fragmented professional identities as we’ve developed markets to match our varied hobbies and interests.

On the importance of community, I am cautious about saying these crowdsourcing companies are communities from which creative production springs. It may be the other way around, or they may be co-emergent. Community, incidentally, is a common watch word in crowdsourcing. Take, for example, Threadless parent company skinnyCorp’s motto: “skinnyCorp creates communities.” Again, in my recent study at iStockphoto, respondents indicated a lack of interest in making friends and networking at the site, and much more of an interest in making money and developing individual photography skills. Crowdsourcing companies may start as communities, but when they mature, the members interested in chatting in forums and networking with other members of the crowd fall into the minority as financial and other individual interests take priority.

Finally, I absolutely agree that the principles that make open source production work are translatable to crowdsourcing. But, as I argue in a recent article (Brabham, 2008a, pp. 81-83), crowdsourcing is not the same as open source. I make this distinction primarily on the overhead costs and risk needed to make tangible goods in crowdsourcing, as opposed to virtual, ones-and-zeros software products in open source production. Motivations for participation are different between crowdsourcing and open source communities, and the investment needed to produce a tangible good requires a greater degree of centralization in crowdsourcing, and subsequently requires a copyright/ownership framework.

These criticisms are not to say that Jeff Howe is wrong in his crowdsourcing claims, only to qualify some of them with some cautionary tales and data. Jeff, you’re blazing new ground with this crowdsourcing stuff, and it’s great that you’re setting up several questions for us researchers eager to learn more about this killer business model.




Brabham, D.C. (2008a). Crowdsourcing as a model for problem solving: An introduction and cases. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), 75-90.

Brabham, D.C. (2008b). [Moving the crowd at iStockphoto: The composition of the crowd and motivations for participation in crowdsourcing applications]. Unpublished raw data. Temporarily available online at

Lakhani, K.R., Jeppesen, L.B., Lohse, P.A., & Panetta, J.A. (2007). The value of openness in scientific problem solving (Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 07-050). Available online at


Greetings Daren; the amateurism assumption, is it about making money or not having had some formal training in a particular area of expertise? The crowd might indeed have a variety of credentials, but are those credentials in the area of chosen involvement?
I do agree that its testament to interdisciplinarity, is that a word, it sounds right, although with the amateur it might be a much more complicated than just vision.
There appears to have been a timeliness element that provided the ground for the rise of amateurism on the net. That and what I would call the intersection of a generation, with some fringe ages, that having grown up with technology and therefore are able to identify and use it in a completely intuitive manner. I wonder if the focus is now much more upon the process/personal interest/vision and aims part rather than the underlying technological usages. Have this present generation of users been released, to a great extent, from the usual constraints of managing that which enables the process.

This generational metamorphosis in the relationship between the user and the technology I believe is a very important factor that underlies much of what is transpiring.

I am also wondering if the use of the word community is problematic because we are still using the word in its traditional sense. Might this new community be a community driven by relationships to the tasks at hand, a changed relationship to work, personal achievement and fulfillment? Not so much reliant upon the need to connect in physical space and time, but still bound by generational factors and by like physiologies and aims? Virtual communities bound but not by what has provided cohesion in the past!

What one sees happening on the web is very complimentary to that thought. Cloud Computing is on the move in a very big way.

The iStockphoto model does provide the material elements to enable this but it also pulls us back to past identifiers and thereby creates confusion.
I could not link to your data on motivations study at
Is there any way I can get to your articles and study?

Warm regards, Alan

Luke Peterson

fyi - Brown has a medical school but not a law school. You mention the one student at both.


I heartily agree with the view that the term 'amateur' doesn't always reflect the actual make-up of a crowd sourced group.
Whether it's Linux, IStockPhoto, Wikipedia et al, there is always a mixture of those who may have professional training, those who have qualifications, and those who have practical knowledge, alongside those who are what would be traditionally called 'amateur'.

And in getting successful results, crowdsourcing needs to draw on all these individuals and give them all a way to connect.

Monica Hamburg

Love this chapter, Jeff, as it reads beautifully.

My chief concern is with the "money" statements. Though compensation is not key (passion often is more of a motivator, it appears, for the crowd to contribute) it is in some respects very important and integral, and quality sometimes, is linked to this element. Someone with great skills but only a small amount of spare time, may contribute sporadically to a site from which they will earn nothing or very little, but proportionally, they are more apt to contribute more if they are better compensated. In particular, someone like Nick Monu, while he may love taking photos, may have provided far less of his work to Istock during the busy period of his education, if it wasn’t in fact paying for that education.

I agree with a few commenters above that it is unfair to paint the entire crowd of non-professionals with the amateur brush, especially in the case of artists, where only a small percentage of talented people tend to make a living with their art. Further, it is important to remember that while some people may be quite experienced and proficient at a specific career, they may not (or may no longer) be employed in that area professionally (e.g. people who have transitioned from one occupation to another). They have expertise and knowledge in areas related their previous vocation, if they do not pursue it full time. While both these categories are not defined as “professionals”, they should certainly not be classified as amateurs.

And, although I certainly have my own concerns about crowdsourcing, another aspect that I think is missing here (though that might be coming up in another chapter)is that in some cases (especially with Istock) this “rise of the amateur” can give power back to the artists and allow them to be successful on their own terms(e.g. Lise Gagné). In these instances, hardworking artists are able to focus on producing the content (and in many cases also helping their peers by critiquing their work), enjoy a community and leave the business elements of exposure, promotion and payment to someone else (in this case the Crowdsourcing company). The artist is visible to many possible purchasers with minimal time investment. Crowdsourcing and social media in general can sometimes even the playing field and give artists more avenues to sell their work(e.g.
deviant art) and allow closer/direct contact with the consumers.

And while it would be ideal for photographers to be paid handsomely for each photo they sell, many would rather have the option of earning $1000 for their photo to be purchased by many rather than have their photo be priced at $400 and sold only once.

Alan Booker

Here is a very interesting post from Kevin Kelly.



I am very interested in crowdsourcing. Probably one of two modes in which crowds (with 'clouds' of Internet) work in the future, the other being what I call mass niche. See

If you used, our web service with wich you can receive feedback and revise by paragraph, I am sure it will be more productive for you and the commenters. Many comments here quote your writing, and with paragraphr it is not or less neccessary. It is still a very early experimentation, but will work just fine for this.


Nick is obviously very talented and hard working. However, for everyone making ten thousand dollars a month taking photos there are ten thousand making one dollar a month. Also, I don’t see Nick giving any amateur appendectomies. Clearly, there are professions where amateurs cannot exist. Nevertheless, I admire Nick’s work ethic and I wish him the best.


In the UK, a good example of the rise of the amatuer could be sited by the use of b3ta or more specifically Joel Veitch. For those of you who haven't seen it's worth a visit. He created a rather random low tech video of cats singing along to various pieces of music (he created them with human mouths).

Again, rather randomly, a flavoured milk drink called Crusha (not sure if you have it in the US), started using the concept, down to the hilt of cats singing along to music to advertise their product. It's pure genius in the market it's catering to, not only is it going to make children laugh to see singing cats, but those who have see Joel Veitch's work are part of the target audience because they *know* what it actually is.

Having had experience of working for an advertising agency, it's obvious that someone in an agency has seen Veitch's work, thought it was hillarious and worked out a way of pitching it to their client. Thus an idea is born, why create an idea from scratch, in house, when there's a solution already out there and waiting for you to use?

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