Digital Media and Culture Yearbook 2014/Chapter 5: Crowdsourcing



Crowdsourcing can be described as "the use of mobile media to incite and organize collective action" [1] or obtaining useful information for a large and generally varied group of people, the most popular venue being the online community. This use of crowdsourcing is helpful in the modern digital age because it is able to generate large amounts of feedback or services with minimal effort. Crowdsourcing is effective in generating a wider knowledge of an event such as a natural disaster or a need for funding as well as compiling small bits of knowledge or labour into a larger pool. For example, Wikipedia is a crowdsourced database itself.

History of Crowdsourcing


The earliest recorded use of Crowdsourcing


In the mid-19th century the creators of the 'Oxford English Dictionary' began an open search for volunteers to help identify all words in the English language and to provide quotations that exemplify their usage. Over six million volunteers responded over the course of seventy years. [2]

Early uses of Crowdsourcing in Business


Minh Le, a Computer Science student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver demonstrated how customers could be used to create innovations around existing products. In 1999 Le modified a video game called Half-Life and turned it into the instantly successful Counter-Strike. Instead of filing a law suit against him for stealing intellectual property, the owners of Half-Life instead realised that there was profit to be made off the back of it. In 2000 the company officially released Counter-Strike and by 2003 it had quickly become the most popular game on the Internet with an estimated 2.5 Million players. This success story meant that Crowdsourcing would become a recognised strategy for many more companies in years to come. [3]

Jeff Howe, a popular academic on the subject of Crowdsourcing said in an article named 'The Rise of Crowdsourcing': "Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D." [4]

Main concepts


The term "crowdsourcing" was first used in 2005 by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, editors at Wired Magazine and a later blog post by Howe published in June 2006 gave the term a proper definition. Howe describes crowdsourcing in the following manner:

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.[5]

The key ingredients of crowdsourcing according to a few dozen scholars who have published on the topic, are:

  • An organisation that has a task it needs performed.
  • A community (crowd) that is willing to perform voluntarily.
  • An online environment that allows the work to take place and the community to interact with the organisation.
  • Mutual benefit for the organisation and the community.[6]

Crowdsourcing as a method of compiling information has been gradually becoming more commonplace over the course of the 21st century to the extent that there now exists a multitude of organisations which use crowdsourcing to their advantage.

Examples and Applications


Wikipedia itself is one of the most relevant examples of crowdsourcing in modern society. Before crowdsourcing was established as a method of collating information, to construct the contents of an encyclopaedia one would have to consult an enormous variety of experts on a large number of different fields and areas of research. With the emergence of crowdsourcing, however, this task has been greatly simplified. Wikipedia can be accessed and edited by any expert on any subject from almost anywhere on the planet. Thus, information can be contributed to a resource such as Wikipedia with greater ease and hopefully with more accuracy than in the past, through the use of crowdsourcing. This use of cognitive surplus enables many people to project their ideas for the use of a greater group, making information much more available to the general public.



Crowdfunding is a branch of crowdsourcing and uses the same basic principles but instead of the participants’ time, it requires their finance. There are multiple types of crowdfunding, such as for a nonprofit campaign or charity- many charities rely on regular payments of small sums of money from thousands of people. Crowdfunding for people in need or those who have done noble things can be particularly effective as it tends to trigger an emotional response from the backer. Such campaigns have a tendency to go viral and may accumulate thousands of backers in a short amount of time. 2012 London Marathon fun runner Claire Squires' Justgiving donation page has thus far raised in excess of £940,000 from over 80,000 backers.[7] Participating in the marathon to raise money for Samaritans charity, she collapsed and died during the race.[8] Commercial crowdfunding campaigns, usually advertised on websites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo or RocketHub, allow for a number of projects to become commercial success stories. Projects advertised on crowdfunding services rely on the generosity and curiosity of project backers. To entice the public to fund projects, incentives ranging from a tour of company labs to being one of the first to own the finished product are sold to backers. The more appealing the incentive, the larger the sum of money a backer is asked to donate. Many of the projects advertised on these websites would likely never have received any publicity because of how difficult they would be to fund using conventional means. Without crowdsourcing, these services would be ineffective, lacking the large-group activity that it takes to provide the projects with their funding. Pebble Technology successfully funded their project using Kickstarter and broke the record for the most money raised using the website. The company is now able to mass produce the Pebble smartwatch thanks to the project’s backers and their product is now on the market in its second iteration.[9]

Crowdfunding can lead to startup companies becoming so attractive that the owners are tempted to sell to make a large financial gain, potentially upsetting early backers. This was the case recently when Facebook bought virtual reality technology firm Oculus VR for £1.2bn and Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “virtual reality will be the next social communications platform”.[10] Reaction from the early backers were mixed with some against and some in favour.[11] This example further demonstrates how crowdfunding can clearly set in motion the development of products that begin with an idea and can become part of a global means of communication, as evidenced by the acquisition of such a product by Facebook, one of the world’s largest technology companies.

Uses in Science


Asking large groups of people on the Internet to contribute to scientific research is still somewhat of a novel idea. In recent years however, citizen science projects have taken off as crowdsourcing is used in innovative ways to excel the rate of various scientific research. Galaxy Zoo 2 was one example of a citizen science project, nearly 84,000 volunteers organised over 300,000 galaxies by answering questions about their visual forms. Each galaxy was classified roughly 44 times resulting in accurate classifications.[12] Stanford University is currently running a project, Folding@home, where users are able to donate their computers’ unused processing power to analyse data collected by the university. The researchers send small packets of data with problems that need solving to users’ computers. Once the problem is solved the data is sent away and swapped for another problem.[13] Samsung too is actively engaging with crowdsourcing; collaborating with the University of Vienna in a similar way, the electronics company has created an Android app called Samsung Power Sleep. The app donates users’ smartphones’ unused processing power whilst they sleep to decrypt protein sequences. Cleverly, the app is actually also a fully functional alarm.[14] The ultimate goal of the two aforementioned examples is to find cures for diseases the researcher are investigating.

Internet Gaming


Steam's Greenlight system offers another example of modern day crowdsourcing. Through Greenlight, Steam users are allowed to upload their own games and game-related content for other users to access and use. As a result of this, the most popular Greenlight projects will be approved and given further exposure to the Steam community. Thus, Greenlight acts as a sort of filter which determines what kind of games and features of Steam are positively received by its users. Simultaneously, Steam developers are able to see what is unpopular, and alter the software in order to best suit its users' needs and demands.

Disaster Relief


Crowdsourcing does not necessarily require an online community. However, it would be accurate to assume that in many cases consulting a large group of people is most efficiently achieved using the Internet. One recent large-scale crowdsourcing effort- the search for a missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 recruited in excess of 150,000 volunteers who combed thorough satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe. Volunteers visited Tomnod, a crowdsourcing website provided by DigitalGlobe dedicated to identifying physical objects from satellite imagery to aid in search and rescue efforts. [15] The volunteers were able to tag objects of interest, such as rafts and oil slicks, from computers around the world. Tagged objects would be examined further and potentially forwarded to the Department of Civil Aviation. Similarly, after hurricane Sandy, a large-scale damage assessment had to be carried out to direct response agencies. The Civil Air Patrol and The Federal Emergency Management Agency made 35,000 images of the affected areas public for assessment. 6,717 public volunteers rated damages on a scale of little/no damage; medium damage; or heavy damage. Interestingly, the report notes that conventionally the data would have been analysed in the same way, (also using crowdsourcing) but the analysers would have been paid. $3,000 was saved thanks to the goodwill of the general public.[16] Crowdsourcing thus knows no boundaries in the digital age and can be legitimately called upon to help save lives. These examples explain the practice of crowdsourcing particularly well, without the combined efforts of thousands of willing volunteers, experts would likely take months to analyse the hundreds of kilometres worth of satellite imagery.



Though crowdsourcing may be an easier and more accessible way to gain the opinion of many, it also presents problems. As computer scientist Jaron Lanier writes, "I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again."[17] The fact that Lanier himself attempted to correct his own Wikipedia page and failed is a testament to the potential hazards of crowdsourcing. Incorrect information can be spread quickly and over large masses of people, causing a rumour to be believed and therefore effecting the quality of information used in various ways. Another related idea of crowdsourcing or using mass media negatively is that "they can be used to stifle, misdirect, and demoralize those who would otherwise be involved in these activities" (Rheingold, p. 17) meaning that any useful participants in certain situations can be diffused with the same ease that they can be rallied.



Junction is a film investment company which has been described as "Kickstarter for the rich."[18] According to media news website The Wrap, Junction is only available to people with an annual income of over $200,000 or a net worth of at least $1 million.[19] While this approach will certainly allow Junction to pursue their projects more successfully, it can be criticised for not following the usual crowdsourcing pattern because of its exclusivity. One of the most important attributes of crowdsourcing is that it is open to everyone, a universal method of achieving goals. However Junction's method limits its members, allowing only wealthy donors. It can be argued that this is not only a flawed crowdsourcing technique, but also discriminatory towards people who may not have a high enough income.

Going commercial


The acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook was aforementioned in relation to crowdfunding leading to the development of products which could have considerable impacts on society. Success stories such as these, however, raise questions of ownership and recognition. The Oculus Rift Kickstarter page as an example had 9,522 backers who collectively financed the project with $2,437,429.[20] Just over a year a half after the project was successfully funded, Facebook is to acquire Oculus VR in a $2 billion valuation of the virtual reality technology company.[21] I question the ethicality of this deal; selling out is unlikely to be seen in a positive light by the backers of the Kickstarter project. Backers of these projects support the projects financially but often may not get any real value from doing so- except the satisfaction of helping a startup and the promise of an eventual product. In the case of Oculus VR, many backers are left with T-shirts and posters; comparatively underwhelming merchandise from a company which would likely not have succeeded without the backers' initial support. Crowdfunding therefore can be a fickle undertaking with backers not having any controlling interest (thus influence) in the projects they choose to fund. It is understandable how backers can feel left high and dry while the owners of the projects become wealthy and successful.



Overwhelmingly, crowdsourcing has a great value in the modern society and is used nearly every day. Technology has allowed humankind to advance greatly, joining us in previously unknown ways. The ability to have real-time conversations with others across the world is an innovation that has evolved rapidly over the last decade. It's easy to see how technology has "the power to persuade and communicate, joined with the power to organise and coordinate, multiplied by the three billion mobile telephones in the world today poses a disruptive political potential that could equal or surpass that of the printing press, landline telephone, television or the Internet." (Rheingold, pp. 225-226). In recent elections, the ability to crowdsource has dramatically changed the results of a nation. In Ghana, cell phones were used to report fraud and illegal actions taken by the politicians themselves, or voters who wished to rig the results. Authorities can quickly become involved in matters where crowdsourcing is used because the more people that report an incident, the higher the chance that actions will be taken to remedy the situation, helping to keep governments and authorities honest by being unable to deny that events have taken place. Large companies can also use crowdsourcing to their advantage. Lush , a company devoted to quality handmade cosmetic products is involved in many charities such as The Fox Project, which aims to reintroduce foxes into the UK wilds. By buying a specific product by Lush, the charity benefits. More people know about the companies than the charities, therefore crowdsourcing can be a bolster to funds by raising awareness through the purchase of popular products.

Future of Crowdsourcing


In 2012 reports showed that there was an estimated 2,405,518,376 people worldwide with access to the Internet. This data indicates that there was a 556.4% increase in the number of Internet users in just two years. [22] Mark Prensky coined the term "digital native" to describe the 'cohorts that are coming of age in the Internet era'. It is a popular belief amongst academics that we are fast approaching "the crowdsourcing generation, a demographic that is perfectly adapted to a future in which online communication will supplant the conventional corporation." [23]

Jeff Howe expands on the idea of the ‘digital native’ by describing what he believes will happen in the future: “Crowdsourcing has already wreaked upheaval in a few select fields… this is because the crowd has made a once scarce resource abundant. As digital natives continue to acquire the skills it takes to build, design, and create, the scarcity of other commodities will also decline, posing great challenges to the companies that traffic in them.” [24] He uses the example of stock photography as where the crowd has caused a decline in scarcity to occur. Graphic designers found it cheaper to share images with each other, which allowed those who took photos or designed images as a hobby to also share their work– hence the need for specialists to provide stock photography declined, and the work of the hobbyists (the crowd) became an abundant resource. According to Howe, companies could face challenges such as picking the right crowd to target– he says that over a billion people are using the Internet so to attract the right people, companies need to be very selective; making sure they don’t see the crowd as a cheap workforce. Howe argues that people’s busy lives mean they would not want to spend a long time doing something unpaid for a business; having to trawl through bad contributions to get to the good ones –not all the thousands of contributions will work; and others. [25] He ends his argument about what could happen in the future by citing a quote from Thomas Malone: “Obsolescence isn’t a new phenomenon. Kids who grew up with running water wouldn’t know how to work a hand pump, and in this new world we’re entering, a lot of what’s familiar will go the way of the hand-pump.” [26] Basically, we could be moving into a future where the crowd is the norm for business and contemporary methods will cease to exist.


  1. Rheingold, H, (2008) "Mobile Media and Political Collective Action" from Katz, E, Handbook of mobile communication studies pp.225- 239, USA: MIT
  2. Lanxon, Nate. How the Oxford English Dictionary started out like Wikipedia. 13 January 2011. 04 04 2014 <>.
  3. Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2008.
  4. Howe, Jeff. "The Rise of Crowdsourcing." Wired Magazine 14 June 2006: 1-5.
  5. Howe, Jeff. "Crowdsourcing: A Definition." 02 June 2006 2006.Web. .l
  6. C.Brabham, Daren. Crowdsourcing. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013.
  7. Squires, Claire. "Claire's page." 10 Apr 2012 2012.Web. 4 Apr 2014 <>.
  8. Hill, Amelia. "Claire Squires donations rocket after London Marathon death." 24 Apr 2012 212.Web. 31 Mar 2014 <>.
  9. Byford, Sam. "Kickstarter funding record smashed by $3.3 million of Pebble smartwatch pledges." 17 Apr 2012 2012.Web. <>.
  10. TKiss, Jemima. "Oculus: Facebook buys virtual reality gaming firm for $2bn." 25 Mar 2014 2014.Web. 25 Mar 2014 <>.
  11. "Facebook buys virtual reality headset start-up for $2bn." 26 Mar 2014 2014.Web. 26 Mar 2014 And understandably so, as expanded upon in the Criticism chapter. <>.
  12. Willett, Kyle W., et al. "Galaxy Zoo 2: Detailed Morphological Classifications for 304 122 Galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (2013): 30/03/2014. Web. <>.
  13. "What if you could help find a cure?" 2013.Web. 4 Apr 2014 <>.
  14. "So good while you sleep." 4 Apr 2013 <>.
  15. Martinez, Michael. "Crowdsourcing search for Malaysian plane goes viral, but no luck so far." 2014.Web. <>.
  16. Munro, Rober, Schuyler Erle, and Tyler Schnoebelen. Aerial Damage Assessment for Hurricane Sandy. Quality Analysis After Action Report for the Crowdsourced Aerial Imagery Assessment Following Hurricane Sandy., 2013. 30/04/2014. Web. <>.
  18. Child, Ben. "Tom Hanks film seeks crowdfunding via 'Kickstarter for the rich' site." 27 March 2014. Web. Retrieved 2 April 2014. <>
  19. Zakarin, Jordan. "New Crowdfunding Site Hosts Big Names – Tom Hanks Film Among First Projects." 26 March 2014. Web. Retrieved 2 April 2014. <>
  20. "Oculus Rift: Step Into the Game." 28 Mar 2014 2014.Web. Kickstarter. 3 Apr 2014 <>.
  21. "Facebook to Acquire Oculus." 25 Mar 2014 2014.Web. 3 Apr 2014 <>.
  22. Group, Miniwatts Marketing. Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. 21 March 2014. 04 April 2014 <>.
  23. Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2008.
  24. Howe, Jeff. "How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business". London: Business Books, 2009. Print.
  25. Howe, Jeff. "CROWDSOURCING Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business." Summaries.Com. 2008. Web. 4 Apr 2014 p.9<>.
  26. Howe, Jeff. 2009. p277



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