Swaroop C H

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Why does crowdsourcing work

25 Feb 2008

Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0 makes it clear that "crowdsourcing" is one of the defining features of Web 2.0, not only RIAs:

"The service automatically gets better the more people use it."

Crowdsourcing is about taking it to the next step where people 'contribute' something to the 'system'.

There are many people and companies trying to make crowdsourcing work in different areas. For example, at Kluster, the participants get to design a product, etc. and the participants who back the winning idea get to share the reward. What is interesting is the story behind Kluster:

Kaufman came up with the idea for Kluster at his last startup, Mophie, which makes iPod accessories and was recently sold to mStation for an undisclosed sum. One of Mophie’s hit products is the Bevy, an all-in-one iPod Shuffle case, bottle opener, cord-wrap, and keychain. The company designed it at last year’s MacWorld conference in 72 hours with input from 30,000 customers using software that was a precursor to Kluster. According to Kaufman, Mophie sold hundreds of thousands of the $15 cases.

And from the June 2006 Wired magazine article:

Melcarek (a registered user at InnoCentive.com) solved a problem that stumped the in-house researchers at Colgate-Palmolive. The giant packaged goods company needed a way to inject fluoride powder into a toothpaste tube without it dispersing into the surrounding air. Melcarek knew he had a solution by the time he’d finished reading the challenge: Impart an electric charge to the powder while grounding the tube. The positively charged fluoride particles would be attracted to the tube without any significant dispersion.

"It was really a very simple solution," says Melcarek. Why hadn’t Colgate thought of it? "They’re probably test tube guys without any training in physics." Melcarek earned $25,000 for his efforts. Paying Colgate-Palmolive’s R&D staff to produce the same solution could have cost several times that amount – if they even solved it at all.

More examples are:

Heck, we even have an O'Reilly book on 'Programming Collective Intelligence' (which has been sitting on my to-read list for too long).

The biggest and best example, of course, is Wikipedia, one of the top 10 largest websites in the world.

The article that blew my mind (and got me wondering about crowdsourcing in the first place) is the Wikipedia page on British crown succession (via IndiaUncut) - this page lists 1388+ people who are in the succession line for the crown!

But I wonder, why did Wikipedia work? Or rather, what makes people contribute to Wikipedia?

The best research on this topic that I found was the article What Motivates Wikipedians? in the CACM monthly magazine:

What motivates Wikipedians?

I wonder if the companies mentioned above are specifically tapping into some of these motivations.

The article goes on to explain the relative importance of these motivations in their survey. I was seriously surprised at how high Ideology and Values rank here! If you get a chance, do read the whole article, it's a good piece of research.

Another interesting research was the paper Becoming Wikipedian: transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia which traces how a casual visitor starts reading Wikipedia and goes on to become a member of the community, and how the social structure and technological aspects enable this.

I think I'm now beginning to understand what Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) said when he was asked the same question:

Love. It isn't very popular in technical circles to say a lot of mushy stuff about love, but frankly it's a very very important part of what holds our project together.

I have always viewed the mission of Wikipedia to be much bigger than just creating a killer website. We're doing that of course, and having a lot of fun doing it, but a big part of what motivates us is our larger mission to affect the world in a positive way.

...

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.

Although this reasoning may apply to Wikipedia which is an encyclopedia and information-centric, I wonder whether the same applies to the other examples above. For example, consider Threadless.com for T-shirt designs... what are the motivations for people in that community? And how much does the website's social and technological structure play a role? What are the magic ingredients that make a crowdsourcing website become successful?

Maybe I should crowdsource this question. Hmmm.

Maybe it is not different from any other kind of website which becomes successful but I think crowdsourcing websites are distinct from content websites like SmashingMagazine.com or e-commerce websites like Amazon/eBay, etc.

Now, the next question is has anybody successfully crowdsourced anything in an India-specific way?


Update on 2008 May 13: ReadWriteWeb has a similar list.

Comments

Swaroop says:

@Prateek: What's the connection of the presentation to crowdsourcing? If you're referring to simply virality, then I think that's only a part of crowdsourcing because virality gets you pageviews but does not necessarily lead to active contributors.

Prateek says:

I personally feel .. you need a large user base for content to become large enough to be useful to a lot of people

I feel virality and crowdsourcing go hand in hand ... for wikipedia its the SEO that gets them new users ... what about other not so popular websites .. they have to make sure they get lots of new users and then work on getting them to contribute

I think any venture has to succeed in both ... may be this is not entirely relevant .. i just wanted you to look at that presentation ... as i thought it was related

Swaroop says:

Aah, yes, I agree with that part. Without enough eyeballs, any website won't be able to do much :) ... and thanks for the presentation, it was interesting to learn about strategies used for facebook apps.

Liz Moise says:

Thanks for a great post. I have to agree that without enough people to contribute, the crowdsourcing model doesn't work as well. We have found that our Solver network of over 140,000 people is very capable of solving almost any problem posted on our website. Their expertise crosses all major disciplines, and they are from all over the globe. Diversity is key!

Regards,
Liz Moise
Marketing Manager
InnoCentive

Prateek says:

Thanks for this great post ...

you may also wanna check this pdf on virality

http://highscalability.com/docs/EmergingTechSIGPresentation.pdf

Swaroop C H, The Dreamer » Archives » How about an Indian amateur music album? says:

[...] wish there was an indie iTunes store in India where I could purchase these songs. Or perhaps even a Sell-a-Band for an Indian [...]

Crowdish says:

It also seems that in the crowdsourced music models that are out there (sellaband), the 15 or so bands that have actually "tipped" in the last two years are the ones who are out there marketing themselves and pushing the crowdsourced/funded opportunity.

BTW, after 7 weeks (and burning thru $1 million in capital), Kluster decided to change its busines model to that of a Knewsroom.

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