The Rise of Crowdsourcing

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The Rise of Crowdsourcing

Companies that want to outsource work to low-paid, highly productive workers often don’t need to look overseas to India and China. Instead, the new source of cheap labor can be found almost anywhere, from a teen in a basement to a stay-at-home mom at her kitchen table to a professional moonlighting as an amateur in another field.

Because of the convergence of cheap computing, powerful software, high-speed Internet access, and the networked relationships among Internet users, suddenly the best solution to many problems is to ask for help from millions of people who just might have what you need.

Consider the humdrum but highly lucrative world of stock photography. When a publisher or a graphic designer is putting together a brochure or an annual report and needs a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, a board meeting, or a cat, the usual practice is to order the pictures from a photographer or from a Web site, where prices can run to several hundred dollars per image.

But now, as Jeff Howe recently explained in a Wired magazine article,1 designers are discovering a much cheaper alternative: a Web site called iStockphoto, where standard pictures cost between $1 and $5. For clients, the savings typically amount to more than 99 percent. For professional photographers used to raking in fees from stock photos, it’s a disaster.

How can iStockphoto price its pictures so low? It gets its content from “the crowd” — specifically, the 22,000 amateur photographers who do something else for a living but contribute their pictures to iStockphoto. Currently, about 1 million photos are available on the site.

For the millions of businesses and professionals that use stock photography, iStockphoto is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, according to Wikipedia,2 “relies upon unpaid or low-paid amateurs who use their spare time to create content, solve problems, [and] even do corporate R&D.”

The phenomenal success of Wikipedia itself is the result of crowdsourcing. The online encyclopedia’s slogan is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Though it was launched only in 2001, it already contains more than 4 million articles in 200 languages, and more than 1,000 new articles are added every day.

But with about 50,000 registered users who can write and edit articles on any topic, regardless of their educational background or expertise, how reliable is the content? That question gets at the heart of the controversy over crowdsourcing: By entrusting the work to amateurs, crowdsourcing might not produce the same level of quality that results from paying top rates to professionals...

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