Jeff Howe on Crowdsourcing

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m in the midst of writing two articles on crowdsourcing and translation, which means I’m busy reading some background material on the topic. I thought I’d post a few quick reviews of the books I’m reading, in case someone else is interested in finding out more about how crowdsourcing can change (and in some cases has changed) the translation process.

Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business is a good introduction to the crowdsourcing phenomenon. According to Howe, crowdsourcing emerged due to four factors: 1) a rising amateur class, 2) the development of open-source software that inspired these amateurs and provided them with a platform to contribute to tasks, 3) the proliferation of the Internet (and cheaper tools for such tasks as photography, film making and graphic design), and 4) the evolution of online communities, which helped organize people into “economically productive units” (2008: 99).

Howe offers a plethora of examples of crowdsourcing in action, with detailed profiles of such ventures as Threadless.com, where people design, vote on, and then purchase winning T-shirt designs, iStockphoto, a community of amateur photographers selling their photos for a nominal fee, and InnoCentive, a network of scientists that help solve R&D problems for fortune 500 companies such as Procter & Gamble (and are paid a financial reward for doing so).

With these kinds of examples, Howe illustrates how crowdsourcing is changing the way work is done. He uses the collaborative effort of Linux, for instance, to show how software can be developed more quickly than with traditional, “heavily managed, hierarchical approach” (2008: 55) and still contain very few bugs. With the InnoCentive example, he shows how problems can be solved by a fresh set of eyes from outside the field and how crowdsourcing often results in a meritocracy, where people are judged on the product they produce rather than their nationality or professional qualifications (2008: 45-46).

I didn’t find any examples of crowdsourced translation initiatives, but Howe does raise some interesting questions about how crowdsourcing challenges traditional concepts, such as how we define the term “professional.” He argues that because information is so readily available on the Internet, “amateurs are able to use the Web to acquire as much information as the professionals” (2008: 40). And that poses problems when we try to determine what makes someone an “amateur” and someone else a “professional”:

relying on financial information to draw distinctions between professional and nonprofessional is a good rule of thumb if you prepare tax returns for a living. But if you’re looking at crowdsourcing, it only produces confusion. What is evident in crowdsourcing is that people with highly diverse skills and professional backgrounds are drawn to participate. While very few iStock contributors are professional photographers, more than half have had at least one year of formal schooling in “art, design, photography, or related creative disciplines” (2008: 27-28).

I do, however, have two complaints about the book. First, the author often doesn’t fully cite his sources, making it hard for readers to fact check or get more information about something Howe says. For instance, on page 15, I came across this tantalizing reference:

A study conducted by MIT examined why highly skilled programmers would donate their time to open source software projects. The results revealed that the programmers were driven to contribute for a complex web of motivations, including a desire to create something from which the larger community would benefit as well as the sheer joy of practicing a craft at which they excel.

Now, since I’m trying to determine why people volunteer to translate websites and other texts, I would really like to take a look at this MIT study to find out about this “complex web of motivations” and to see how the survey was designed. Unfortunately, Howe doesn’t provide the date, authors or title of the publication where he found this information, so I’m out of luck. I realize that Howe’s book is published by a trade publisher rather than an academic press, but it does include endnotes with bibliographic details for a number of other references, so there’s no reason for this reference to be missing. (Incidentally, I did manage to find several papers on the motivations of open-source developers, and I’ve listed them at the end of this post, in case anyone is interested. One even appears in a volume published by MIT.)

My second complaint is that Howe seems to have assumed that few people will read through his book from beginning to end (as I did). Otherwise, why would he repeat sentences (and sometimes paragraphs) in multiple chapters. For instance, I found these three sentences on pages 134 and 159, when Howe describes “idea jams”, or the use of crowdsourcing to generate new ideas:

People have pointed out that this is little more than an Internet-enabled suggestion box. Just so. The Internet didn’t make crowdsourcing possible–it just made it vastly more effective.

Despite my two quibbles, though, this is an interesting and very accessible book that explores various facets of crowdsourcing (from for-profit initiatives like YouTube and MySpace, which make money selling advertising around user-generated content, to projects like Wikipedia and the futures market like the Iowa Electronic Markets). If you’re at all intrigued by the phenomenon, it’s worth a read.

References:
Freeman, Stephanie. (2007). The Material and Social Dynamics of Motivation: Contributions to Open Source Language Technology Development. Science Studies, 20(2): 55-77 [available online here].

Ghosh, Rishab Aiyer. (2005) Understanding Free Software Developers: Findings from the FLOSS Study. In Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam & Karim R. Lakhani (eds). Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hars, Alexander & Shaosong Ou. (2002). Working for Free? Motivations for Participating in Open-Source Projects. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 6(3): 25-39.

Howe, Jeff. (2008). Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. New York: Crown Business.

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