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On virtuoso search and crowds without creativity – crowdsourcing theory (part 2)


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7 October 2009
15:42
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Have we all been imbibing the cool aid? Are the likes of Wikipedia really crowd-powered?

In a recent well-argued article in Forbes – The Myth of Crowdsourcing – Dan Woods claims crowds don’t innovate, individuals do.

Crowds and uniquely talented individuals

“There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. Frequently, these innovators have been funded through failure after failure. From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.”

He goes on to point that what are often called crowdsourcing platforms really are virtuoso search platforms.

Apparently Dan Woods accosted Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales at a conference last year and asked him about how articles were created.

“He said that the vast majority are the product of a motivated individual. After articles are created, they are curated–corrected, improved and extended–by many different people.”

I agree with Dan Woods to an extent. Just like much of the sharing on social platforms is actually just egotistical self publishing, crowds are often driven by a few talented individuals. I have discovered brilliant individual photographers on Flickr, but you do have to wade through quite a bit of mediocrity first.

The LA Times’s experiment with a Wikitorial – an attempt to have a user-created and contributed editorial on the Iraq War – is proof of how the crowd can get it wrong.

“On Friday, the paper introduced an online feature it called a wikitorial, asking Web site readers to improve a 1,000-word editorial, “War and Consequences”, on the Iraq war.

Readers were invited to insert information, make changes or come to different conclusions.”

It did not last.

“A Los Angeles Times experiment in opinion journalism lasted just two days before the paper was forced to shut it down Sunday morning after some readers repeatedly posted obscene photos.”

Want to see something not very cool that sounds awful? Then look at MTV’s Amplichoir below. It’s part of a marketing campaign and billed as the world’s biggest crowdsourced choir. Users are incentivised to take part via a competition prize.

It screams fake, sounds horrid and its pastel coloured iPod-esque backgrounds look contrived. Mr. Woods I’m sure would agree that this proves his point. It does not work because there is no talented individual(s) to make something of it.

But my agreement with Mr. Woods only goes this far.

YouTube is full of bad user-submitted videos – and the odd good one , but as a whole it is collective effort. Most quality Wikipedia articles may be driven by an individual user, but the whole is a “crowdsourced” phenomenon.

And both YouTube and Wikipedia have been increasing mechanisms that make collaboration and reaction to others’ contributions possible. This allows us to feed off, incorporate and build on ideas.

Curveball! Kutimans splicing together of YouTube videos into fantastic new ones, is that not evidence of a crowd of virtuoso’s being used and orchestrated by a virtuoso?


Where the crowd’s contributions stop and the virtuoso’s starts is not always so clear cut.

Creation vs Evaluation

There are of course two kinds of ways to tap into collective intelligence. And perhaps that’s where Mr. Woods confusion arises.

The one – like Wikipedia and like Flickr is where people – yes individuals – create.

But there is another form. i.e. to evaluate existing ideas and creations – and this often happens anonymously.

It’s when we look at the power of collective evaluation – like with voting mechanisms, market prediction systems or systems like Google’s Pagerank (effectively a voting mechanism that counts links to predict web page importance), that we can see a more pure form of collective intelligence in action. Google does an amazing job of finding good websites based on our links.

In other words, where we use collective methods for large scale evaluation and not ‘just’ for ideation or creation we have more pure examples of ‘crowd’ intelligence. But even these lines are blurring.

Digg and the Starbucks and Dell idea platforms allow users to submit ideas, and others to vote on them. Eat your heart out Mr. Woods.

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