Crowdsourcing, by Daren C. Brabham

John Gilbey on a stimulating discussion of the definition of a widely used term

July 25, 2013

The concept of crowdsourcing is something that has largely evolved during the past decade, and it is a term that tends to be widely used without any of us necessarily thinking too hard about what exactly we mean by it. This compact volume by Daren Brabham – part of MIT Press’ series Essential Knowledge – seeks to clarify what crowdsourcing is and, equally importantly, what it isn’t, before going on to analyse the past, present and potential futures of the arena.

Solidifying out of the emergence of a more generally interactive internet in the early 2000s, crowdsourcing has certainly had its fair share of definitions. Brabham takes a stand early in the text by producing a composite description based on published work over the past five years or so. His short-form definition, which is expanded on later, is that crowdsourcing is a “deliberate blend of bottom-up, open, creative process with top-down organizational goals”. This is a rather narrower definition than the one I had been intuitively expecting, and it does lead to some interesting – and perhaps surprising – exclusions.

By Brabham’s analysis, the development of open source software doesn’t count as crowdsourcing because, he suggests, the ethos is that there should be no top-down management of the project and that both the “process and design” are defined by the project workers rather than by an external organisation. In a similar vein, he feels that the successful online encyclopedia Wikipedia isn’t strictly crowdsourced, as the structure of the site is merely a set of tools that allow people to freely contribute content.

Crowdsourcing relates to situations where the levels of control, from above, and creativity, from below, are finely balanced

Among the other practices Brabham excludes from crowdsourcing as he defines it are solely commercial constructs, such as consumers choosing a new flavour for a soft drink via an online poll run by the manufacturer, or historical collaborations such as the generation of content for the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s. Crowdsourcing, he feels, is a purely internet-based phenomenon – and a term best reserved for situations where the levels of control, from above, and creativity, from below, are finely balanced. The wider discussion of the detail in Brabham’s crowdsourcing definition could usefully fuel an entertaining evening in a bar somewhere – a debate I’d very much enjoy taking part in.

Having excluded these putative contenders, what remains? Brabham uses the example of a T-shirt company in the US whose collaborators could submit potential designs for new shirts, vote for the designs that they liked and – of course – purchase the resultant merchandise. The successful designers would be rewarded with a cash prize and a gift certificate, while the company would know that it had a measurable market for the product even before manufacture. A neat idea, I think you’ll agree, and one that has a visible and obvious balance.

This book, which goes on to examine in useful detail the wider social and ethical issues around crowdsourcing, is in essence an interesting and enjoyable take on our old friend the review article. It identifies an area of growing interest – and sometimes concern – and provides a well-referenced, timely analysis of the field in an easily assimilated format. More than that, Brabham has embedded a good deal of personal thought and argument into the text, so that it becomes a powerful statement of his position on the nature of crowdsourcing. Importantly, in an area that is so rapidly developing, it delivers a snapshot of current understanding that should act as a foundation for discussion, discourse and debate. Over a beer, preferably.

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