Always check your (crowd)sources

Crowdsourcing Landscape
Crowdsourcing, the practice of a outsourcing tasks to massive online communities, is used by a number internet-based businesses to build engagement while solving problems (“Crowdsourcing Landscape” is licensed by Paolo Massa under CC BY-SA 2.0)

“There’s strength in numbers.”

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Seems sensible, right? I have some reservations about the last one – more on that later – but you get the idea. That’s the mark of a good maxim: it sounds like something you’ve always known but never got around to expressing yourself.

Taken together, these are the principles behind crowdsourcing: the act of enlisting the networked masses to take on tasks that are impossible to do alone.

Crowdsourcing Jacket
In Crowdsourcing (2008), Jeff Howe explores the good and bad of this new digital phenomenon. (“Crowdsourcing Jacket” is licensed by Sherwood Forlee under CC BY 2.0)

In 2006, Jeff Howe coined the term for Wired, writing about the new market created by internet companies like iStockphoto and Shutterstock that undercut expensive, professional photographers by tapping amateurs for cheap stock photography. 

“Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers,” writes Howe, “have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd.

“The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.”

And journalists are getting onboard.

In a report for The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Johanna Vehkoo flags the Guardian as a frontrunner in the trend for releasing a searchable database of leaked British MP expense reports in 2009:

“The paper uploaded all Britain’s MPs’ expenses claims – 458,832 documents – onto its website for people to go through in a game-like environment. The readers could choose which MP’s receipts to go through and then report their findings in four categories: not interesting/interesting/interesting but known/investigate this!”

1966 Ad, Solarcaine Spray,
News organization, like the Guardian, have been burned for failing to verify source data – an especially important step when crowdsourcing (“1966 Ad, Solarcaine Spray, ‘Stops Sunburn Pain’” is licensed by Classic Film under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Since the Daily Telegraph broke news of the leak, and covered all the major cases of misconduct, Vehkoo sees the Guardian’s move as more of a “community building” exercise than a fishing expedition. It was a relatively cheap and fun way to drive sustained traffic and maybe catch a few stories without the trouble of sifting through nearly half a million documents. What more could an online news outlet ask for?

Well, reliability for one.

A glaring problem with crowdsourcing, especially for journalists, is verification. In the Guardian example, Vehkoo points out, one contributor misread an MPs receipt for “training” as “tanning.” Needless to say, that episode left the Guardian red in the face when the truth came to light.

There’s power in numbers, sure. But that kind of power doesn’t necessarily translate to intelligence.


One thought on “Always check your (crowd)sources

  1. Very interesting take! Sometimes I wonder if it’s as much work to verify all the crowd-sourced information as it is to just look yourself. And there’s a question of ethics as well. How ethical is it to ask people to do work for you so you don’t have to pay someone? Very interesting!


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