Collaboration


In early June 2007, I shared the following twitter:

Idea: ‘YouShould’, a suggestion site where people write open letter suggestions of ideas for companies, authors, and services

There had been two things on my mind. The first was the potential benefit to consumers that such feedback could allow.  I was inspired by Gmail’s suggestion page, where one can suggest what they would like to see implemented in Gmail next. Google appears to take it seriously, too, listing past suggestions that have already been implemented. The other reason for my idea was that I had been brainstorming for my senior thesis, which was beginning in September. However, once September rolled around, “YouShould” was crushed by the release of the similarly named Should Do This.  While perhaps no exactly what I had imagined, it was pretty darn close.  I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so I dropped the project.

Turns out, dropping the project was probably a good idea.  After Should Do This, there came IdeaScale, and CrowdSound, and Suggestion Box, and UserVoice, FeatureList, Fevote and CollabAndRate.com.  All of these had different approach to the same concept: getting feedback from customers.  Turns out I wasn’t alone in the concept.

Unfortunately, as tends to be the rule, none of these services seem to have gained any traction. Interesting on paper, there was not enough return to attract critical mass and make the idea suceed. One reason is that, with unsolicited advice, users do not gain a sense of contribution. One thinks, what are the odds that a company cared enough to seek out these websites?  Users want to offers their thought and suggestions, but they also want to be heard. It’s like that wonderful game my aunt always played with the kids: “who can stay quiet for the longest”. Sneaky, yes, but we certainly stayed quiet for longer than we would have simply for its own sake. This is why general suggestion boards have been failing, and crowd-suggestion businesses has been moving into infrastructure, offering tools that enable business to ask their customers themselves.

How many times have you liked a television show, and found yourself lamented the fact that —unless you’re directly being asked by Nielson or BBM— your patronage does not actually register? The broadcast system that television uses is by definition clunky: it transmits only one way, from one to many, without a direct capacity for information feedback. This simple concept was outlined in the Shannon-Weaver model of communication back in the 40s. However, while the flow of source > encoder > message > channel > decoder > receiver is adequate for describing technology, attempts to apply it to human communication have been notably shortchanged. It simply is not natural to our nature, not reflective of how humans negotiate meaning. The transmission model is not simply limited to delivery of television and radio signals. In a way, our entire consumer culture attempts this few-to-many transmission. Business online, however, exists within a system constructed to be (though not always realized as) many-to-many. Feedback is the nature of the internet. If you’d like to see organic cotton shirts at the Gap, the time investment in doing so would discourage casual contributions. More likely, your feedback would be much more crude, by shopping elsewhere, in which case the Gap is left trying to figure out why you did so. In contrast, a Gmail user conscious of the idea solicitation page can quickly send in a thought when they have it.

“It’s not the cost we’re looking at, it’s how we are making the application better for the consumer” —Jari Pasanen, Nokia VP for innovation acceleration (BusinessWeek.com)

In “How Nokia Users Drive Innovation“, Business Week outlines Nokia’s solicitation of its users for ideas, and the sucess that that have been having. Other companies that do so are Starbucks (My Starbucks Idea), Salesforce (SalesForce IdeaExchange), and Dell (Dell IdeaStorm). In these example, communities have formed around supporting and expanding on ideas. A cynical observer would suggest that these companies are looking for free business advice. The reality, however, is that it is in the best interest of customers to help build better products for themselves. Companies are constantly looking for feedback and those that respond as the people for whom the company adapts to. This idea is nothing new; what has emerged is the persistance and tenacity of users in doing so when given the proper tools.

Advertisements

There are mainly two ways in which crowds are utilized in crowdsourced effects. 

The first is what I’d call the “million monkeys” strategy.  Quite simply, this is the appeal to the crowd for the one or few with a commodity —be it information or material– that you need. “With a group this large, I’m bound to find what I need!”  Greater size and diversity offers a bigger box to sift through, but ultimately it is a few individuals that matter, rather than the crowd itself. 

The million monkey strategy is common online today.  Skill auction sites, such as 99Designs, iStockPhoto, and Yahoo! Answers, reward the best provider of solution to a problem while others watch from the sidelines.  Even though the Internet does not provide anything newly achievable, in that the right connection at the right time does not necessitate a gradiose group, the amount of minds online have greatly increased the potential of achieving that ideal connection.

Yet consider the example of 99 Designs, where people offer bounties for their design needs, and then choose the best submission as the winner of the challenge and recipient of the payment.  A few hundred dollars for a job may seem common for an entry-level designer, but that seems much smaller when one considers the discarded man-hours of the unpaid submitters.  Spec (‘speculative’) work is frowned upon by professionals because of its devaluative nature, and this concern can be seen to parallel much million-monkey crowdsourcing: it skins the cow for the leather but leaves the meat to rot.

More exciting is truly collaboratively crowdsourcing, because it represents possibilities for collective creation and problem-solving that have never been seen before.  In the purest form, such crowdsourcing allows thousands to each contribute a small part towards a bigger picture (recall the metaphor of Ten Thousands Cents).  Oftentimes, such crowdsourcing overcomes traditional organization dilemmas, such as costs and management.  For example, to categorize images en masse, as is done both actively with the ESP Game and incidentally with Flickr tagging, could not possibly be done at any reasonable rate of return prior to the arrival of the Internet.

As modern communication technology encourages crowds to grow larger while more streamlined, what new problems will they come to solve?  My communications education has pinned groups as collectively blunt, but now it seems that this is a result of primitive communication techniques; online, the “individual” is much more a part of the whole.  If we continue to repurpose individual minds in new combinations, the results will be something not often characteristic of society: fresh.

As both the million monkey and truly collaborative approaches require the same source—a crowd— projects need not be bound to simply one approach, nor are they.  For example, the ever-popular Threadless has a million monkeys system for t-shirt submissions, while an generally democratic system of voting (mixed with some managerial liberties).  If there is a community with one goal it can be re-purposed for another.  And thus we arrive at a topic for another day: the reworking of existing communities.