Part 1: What is crowdsourcing?

Marcus Winter's picture

One of the first tasks in any research project is reviewing the literature: you want to know where the research fits in and avoid reinventing the wheel. This often brings up interesting stuff - which is usually hidden away in a project report that might (optimistically) be read by a handful of people! This is the first in a series of blog posts that air some of the findings of our literature review. We'll start with a discussion of crowdsourcing in Part 1 and take a closer look at games next time.      

Part 1: What is crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourcing is the flavour of the day. Forbes trumpets that "Crowdsourcing Technology Offers Organizations New Ways To Engage Public In History" [1] and Real Business asks "Why rely on the talents of your own staff, when the whole world is waiting to help you?" in a recent feature headlined "Why you need to be crowdsourcing" [2]. 

Back to basics

The term "crowdsourcing" was popularised in a June 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe [3] to describe the practice of using the Internet to outsource work to a large number of individuals. However, as Howe notes in a blog post around the same time [4], the term was quickly adopted by others and often used  "incorrectly" (i.e. differently from his intended meaning) in the sense of commons-based peer production [5] which we mostly associate with open-source software development. 

Whereas the former uses the "spare processing power of millions of human brains" [3] and does not require any deep commitment or social connections between contributors, the latter involves groups of individuals collaborating "on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals" [5], implying deep engagement and social interaction between participants.

The difference between the two is discussed in "Crowds and Communities: Light and Heavyweight Models of Peer Production" by Caroline Haythornthwaite [6]:

  • Lightweight Peer Production involves large numbers of unrelated individuals ("crowd") who contribute to a product but don't have a say in the direction or development of the project itself. Work is broken down into small rule-based tasks that require little domain knowledge and no long-term commitment.
  • Heavyweight Peer Production involves a community of individuals who contribute to the product as well as the direction and development of the project itself. Contributions are more complex and often require participants to make independent decisions and pay attention to the actions and contributions of others. 

So what?

When we asked the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts to support 10 Most Wanted, we proposed to try a new form of crowdsourcing that mixes these two approaches. We think that our contributors can do more than carry out "small rule-based tasks" and in fact are capable of tackling complex problems, taking the initiative, following their nose and digging up valuable information we'd never would have the time or energy to find ourselves. The game is on to prove us right: Ten Most Wanted will launch soon....

Check back next week for Part 2: Play a game?       


[1] Forbes (20 Sep 2013). Crowdsourcing Technology Offers Organizations New Ways To Engage Public In History. Available

[2] Real Business. (19 Sep 2013). Why you need to be crowdsourcing. Available 

[3] Howe, J. (2006). The Rise of Crowdsourcing. Wired, 14(6), (June 2006). Available

[4] Howe, J. (2006b). Crowdsourcing: A Definition. Blog post from June 02, 2006. Available

[5] Benkler, Y. (2002). Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm. Yale Law Journal, 112, 369–446.

[6] Haythornthwaite, C. (2009). Crowds and communities: Light and heavyweight models of peer production. Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference On System Sciences, January 5-8, 2009, Big Island, Hawaii.