Crowdsourcing by Jeff Howe

Jeff Howe subtitles his August 2008 book “Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business”, and from a business perspective I think Howe really understands the way the Internet is changing business. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of Howe’s point, the core principles described in Crowdsourcing are well articulated and there are probably few who understand this phenomenon much better than Howe himself.

Crowdsourcing is, in short, the practice of using a community (the crowd) of Internet-connected individuals to create value for your brand. There are a ton of examples, some of which Howe includes, others which he doesn’t talk about. For anyone who has been on the ‘Net for any period of time, particularly since they were young, there is something stupidly obvious about Howe’s book. But Howe isn’t writing for people my age or younger (I consider myself to be near the upper age limit of the so-called Digital Natives), he’s writing for people just a bit older, who see what is happening, but find themselves unable to quantify (or perhaps entirely understand) what is going on with it.

Even for me, and I consider myself on the edge of these two worlds, since I was almost thirteen before we had the Internet (Dial-Up) at home. Sure, I’d been involved (at least on the edges) of the BBS scene before then, and I’ve been using computer’s since I was five years old, but the idea of being always online and having fast connections still, on some level, amazes me.

Being able to see this issue from both sides, I enjoyed Howe’s book. Did it amaze me? Not really, aside from some specific examples that I’d not heard of before, like Innocentive or iStockPhoto. Clearly, Crowdsourcing is powerful, and I see little reason to expect it to go away any time soon.

I will say, however, that if you expect this book to be a guide to building a business based on this phenomenon, don’t expect any easy steps. Howe doesn’t dance around the fact that Crowdsourcing business are hard to build because the crowd’s interests can be hard to guage, some tasks are hard to break down into pieces the size necessary to make Crowdsourcing work.

Howe doesn’t make the distinction, but I think it’s important that to identify that Open Source and Crowdsourcing, while similar, are not really the same thing, at least in my opinion. To me crowdsourcing is more like iStockPhoto or NASA’s Clickworker program. While a very active community can grow around them, the general contributions of the members tend to be very small. In Open Source, or at least the model inspired by Open Source, contributors tend to be more committed. Tend to work on projects longer. In my opinion, Wikipedia fits this model well, because most of the edits are made by a relatively small group of committers, just like in Open Source software development.

The world is changing, and no longer will business be able to present it’s product in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. Community and dialogue are central to the crowdsourcing movement, and even traditionally Business-to-Business companies will be deeply affected by this change. However, there is a lot of room for wealth to be generated, if only we can figure out how. Sure, most people are going to fail in this new market (but then, most people already fail in the current market), but the biggest successes, generate wealth within the community, not just from the community.