Use a crowd, gain an expert

Karthika Muthukumaraswamy on how crowdsourcing experiments in journalism need to learn from their commercial counterparts – and how the end results could bring financial rewards for everyone.

The crowd has done a great deal for journalism: it has counted the number of SUVs on the streets of New York City, determined Bill Clinton’s financial impact on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and offered valuable suggestions to transform an impoverished Ugandan village.

Ever since journalism jumped on the crowdsourcing bandwagon following innovative business models in T-shirt designing and problem solving, it has been baffled by the intensity of crowd response. Consequently, the media’s implementation of it has lacked the selection process that is essential to use crowdsourcing to its fullest potential.

There are only so many T-shirts that Threadless can make and sell; there are only so many solutions to Innocentive’s complex problems; and there are only so many photographs that iStockphoto consumers will purchase.

But when the News-Press in Southwest Florida turned to its citizens for help with investigating the rising costs of local public utilities, much of the voluminous response – amounting to 6,500 pieces of user-generated stories – was published in six weeks following the investigation.

The difference lies in the ultimate goal. A company that aims to create a product is merely looking for the best idea to create one, and one that is looking to solve a problem is looking for the best solution. Journalism, on the other hand, while seeking the best stories, is also hoping to mobilize the maximum number of civilians and fulfill the ideals of democracy.

Stimulating citizen participation is, and should, in fact be, an important goal of crowdsourced journalism.

However, when it comes at the price of quality, as any cursory glance at citizen journalism sites would reveal, it not only compromises the media’s role in society, but also belittles the effectiveness of civilian engagement.

Not surprisingly, there is now an increasing desire for more reliable information on the Web, as seen from the popularity of sites such as BigThink and Mahalo, which rely on expert and professional sources rather than random, large groups of people.

The aim of crowdsourcing is to effectively enhance the quality of journalism because of crowd contributions, not despite them. And that is why distilling the best ideas, and thereby their utilization, becomes important.

Selecting for the top contributions and contributors is not new to citizen journalism. Establishing a community of dynamic civilians that a news organization can tap into on a regular basis is an important objective for most crowdsourced journalism projects.

The citizen journalists who established their credibility through productive efforts in Off the Bus have been largely retained to help report on the parent news site, the Huffington Post.

The investigative journalism site, Propublica, hopes to build a similar community of citizen journalists through its recently announced pro-am project.

The News-Press’s Team Watchdog went one step further and implemented a rigorous screening process that involved resumes and interviews to select twenty citizen volunteers from the Fort Myers community.

While such organization is essential for the success of open-source projects, news entities should be careful so as not to replicate the top-down hierarchy that still prevails in conventional media. This could defy the tenets of decentralization and independence that are essential to James Surowiecki’s concept of crowd wisdom.

It also ends up reinforcing the digital, intellectual, and economic divide that crowdsourcing already perpetuates.

The pharmaceutical company, Innocentive, has used a less conventional approach to seek out experts. Its website posts open calls to solve complex chemical problems to its large global community. While many of the 160,000 registered members of Innocentive are from highly specialized fields with advanced degrees (over a third have doctorates), almost anyone can register and take a crack at a problem.

Little surprise, then, that the company has turned up some unlikely problem-solvers in the form of patent attorneys and college students. Hence, real-world degrees and professional experience may not be the defining parameters for expertise, a finding that is reinforced by research from Harvard University.

The open-source technical support site, has the luxury of using a more democratic approach to source “experts” from the crowd. The best solutions to technical problems are voted on by users, and the higher a contributor’s rating, the higher his authority and credibility in the community.

While the idea of allowing communities to choose their own experts would be desirable to citizen journalism, this form of user rating does not appear to work in more subjective areas.

While quantifiable answers to technical support questions are easier to rate, crowd wisdom is less reliable in judging more creative fields such as art and journalism. We all know that sensationalism would sooner get a Digg story on the home page or make an Internet video go viral than high-quality journalism would.

Hence, it would probably be in the best interest of news organizations to make these determinations at the editorial level.

In addition to improving the quality of content, such a strategy would promote better submissions from users. Crowdsourcing ventures like iStockphoto and Innocentive have shown that providng rewards – in the form of fame or bounty – works. As Jeff Howe, who coined the very term that all the fuss is about, has learned, community standing and recognition might be the key motivators in crowdsourced operations.

If you are one among thousands of people and don’t get recognition for your particular effort, there is little motivation for you to come back and participate.

If the more deserving contributors are acknowledged, and given special access privileges (such as being able to post content without moderation, for instance), it would encourage them to contribute more, and urge other contributors to compete at a higher level.

The unique, creditable, and more attractive content that would result from such moderation will eventually lead to higher site traffic, increased number of unique visitors, and hence, more advertising revenue. This might legitimize charging for content, thus allowing greater profits for news organizations, and possibly payment of individual contributors.

With contributors specifically chosen for the merit of their submissions, news organizations could finally explore the possibility of compensating the crowd for the product it creates. The opportunity to make money has been shown to be the most popular reason to participate in crowdsourcing projects.

Three years ago, when crowdsourcing first made a splash in the world of business and journalism, its democratic, freewheeling ideal was intriguing in all its novelty. But now, critics – and contributors themselves – have begun to question the legitimacy of a concept that puts people to work for little or no monetary gain while holding complete ownership over the product. “Is crowdsourcing evil?” asks Howe in Wired this week, detailing a backlash that is brewing in the design community.

It may be argued that the weeding out of contributors goes against the grain of grassroots citizen journalism. However, it is important to remember that news organizations are also entities that offer a service to people, and it behooves them to perform this service well.

In the field of business and innovation, companies are implementing a division of labor – specialized tasks are sourced to “experts,” while more general assignments are sourced to crowds. It is tempting to speculate that such a practice would work well for journalism.

Seeking ideas for stories from general readers, as well as involving them in the debate and discussion would fulfill the core purposes of journalism. On the other hand, the knowledge and skills of more prolific contributors could be utilized for specialized reporting. This would ensure the dissemination of quality content while still utilizing crowd diversity.


2 thoughts on “Use a crowd, gain an expert

  1. Ian Wash

    Very interesting article! Like any other business affected by the recession need to reinvent themselves, all the companies you mention will need to crowdsource their business model. What you do not mention in your article is the fact that many of the companies charge “a very large fee” to get posted on claimed large forces of super humans capable of dishing out solutions. I am a solver in many of the networks. They are for the few that can afford their fees. In fact there are quite large fees to be paid upfront to get a posting and a small fee “if and only” you get the result desired. So is correct to say that they are only for the few that can afford the cost of posting? What if the company posting looks at the idea and modifies that slightly and decides to not pay the price? We solvers are left with a ton of time that was unpaid and maybe, just maybe the lucky one will get money? I wonder when facebook or an Amazon or Google will start a true “crowdsourcing” web site that will allow “free” and “open” posting or simply create an eBay like auction for the purchases of IP rights. Maybe that exists already? I also wonder why all the major players do not post the costs they charge/propose and shy away from audits on claimed numbers of members.

  2. KarthikaM

    That’s a very interesting point. Unfortunately, crowdsourcing will probably not get rid of the digital and economic divide for a very long time, especially owing to the medium in which crowdsourcing operations are conducted, which often require a high-speed Internet connection, at the very least, a computer or access to one. However, it does alleviate the divide ever so slightly as compared to conventional systems that require advanced degrees from big-name institutions that are beyond the reach of any average person.
    There is no doubt that crowdsourcing has a long way to go before it can become truly democratic, and actually give an equal opportunity to all the potential “experts” in a crowd. Tweaking of ideas generated by a crowd is certainly a potential problem, so is the lack of complete transparency with regard to numbers and costs. It can be hoped that as the concept becomes more mainstream, rules can be put in place that establish such norms.


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