Further Reading

A while ago, I suggested checking out Jeff Howe‘s book excerpts, and tried to summarize some of the best parts.  As “the best parts” grew quite long, I had to cut the post, leaving later bits unpublished.

With the book out now, I’m digging those back up.  Here’s the excerpt on Chapter 5, where things start getting interest, and some of my thoughts.

Chapter 5: The Rise and Fall of the Firm: Turning Community Into Commerce

Chapter 5 touches upon an oft understated quality of crowds: their natural connection to community.  Crowds are rarely groups of disparate human being.  Rather, they form around common connections in varying degree of community.

Howe explains to us that communities are changing: not for the worse, but toward the more efficient.  A grievance we often hear about modern society is the erosion of neighbourhood communities.  However, geographically-defined communities, in their pre-World War II hey-day, were popular because they were the most accessible common-interest groups (the common-interest being the location).  As new tools became available, humans have found ways of being community members with broader groups, and bound by interests beyond geography.  Thus, the slide of our culture’s individuals into new depths of isolation is not the case.  Rather, our communities are simply moving into less visible ground.  In a great observation that I had not considered, Howe notes that now, with the ease of social connection provided by digital tools, “new types of communities have materialized that are both local and wired at the same time”.

Chapter 5 also looks at the successful online efforts of the Cincinatti Enquirer, particularly through the CincyMoms community blogs.  It is a good look at do-or-die changes in publishing.  There’s also a gem of information I wanted to highlight lest you miss it.  In regards to a reader-submission feature on the Enquirer’s website:

The words “GetPublished” feature prominently on every Enquirer Web page. The results land in Parker’s queue, and they almost never resemble anything commonly considered journalism. “It used to read, “Be a Citizen Journalist,” Parker says. “And no one ever clicked on it. Then we said, ‘Tell Us Your Story,’ and still nothing. For some reason, ‘GetPublished’ were the magic words.” The Enquirer considers the feature to be an unequivocal success.


US Crowdsourcing Book CoverJeff Howe, the man that coined the term “crowdsourcing” in a June 2006 article, is in the editing stages of his new book, and wants your comments.  Since April, he has been posting excerpts from Crowdsourcing: How the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business.  The purpose is to solicit crowd insight and comments, the best of which may even make it into an appendix.  However, at the same time, it allows us to sneak a peak inside into the book.

If you worried that Howe was simply falling into writing the book by obligation, worry not— the book, as seem through the excerpts, appears to be wonderfully written and insightful.  It’s a highly recommended read, and I hope that the rest keeps up the same calibre.

Here’s links and summaries to the parts that have been thus far posted (Chapters 2-4, more to come later).  Remember that there’s an open call to contribute insight, so if you have an issue to raise, let him have it.

Chapter Two: The Rise of the Amateur excerpt #1

More setting the pace than offering insight, this excerpt introduces us to iStockPhoto, the low-cost stock photo site run by amateurs.  The site is profitable—making more more for parent Getty Images than any other property— but the secret’s not in the commerce.  Rather, it ‘s the community.  The site does not exploit naive photographers by underpaying them, but rather offers them a community for improving their skills, incidentally offering the promise of a bit of money.  “iStock doesn’t offer a chance to get rich. It offers the chance to make friends and become a better photographer.”

Chapter Two: Rise of the Amateur excerpt #2

The second excerpt from Chapter 2 outlines the importance of amateurs in the early stages of the Scientific Revolution.  However, industrialization led to increased specialization, and society began to breed experts over polymaths.  The division of labour, which reached its pinnacle with Fordism, began to cross into academia, creating segmented areas of human thinking.

This excerpt provides the setting for story from Chapter 4 onwards, where we start to see the trend begin to reverse.

Chapter 3: From So Simple a Beginning excerpt #1

Howe introduces us to the remarkably capable open-source movement, and the equally important GNU/General Public License.  From such a seemingly chaotic and unstructured model as open-source comes some truly remarkable software, oftentimes better than commercial alternatives.  Anybody who has used a popular Linux distro will can relate to this fact.

In 1976, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote an “open letter to hobbyists.” It did not mince words: ‘As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software.’ …The hobbyists needed professional programmers because, after all, ‘What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free?’ Gates could have never anticipated the answer to his question, which was that no single hobbyist could put 3-man years into such a daunting task, but 3,000 hobbyists easily could, and soon would.

Chapter 3: From So Simple a Beginning excerpt #2

Another great excerpt, here we look at the flaws of the patent system and are introduced to a concept that we will see in later sections: when the mixed masses do a job better than experts.

The patent system was broken. The debate now revolves around how to fix it. Over 90 percent of patent applications are successful, giving rise to a rat’s nest of vague, overlapping patents. “We wind up in these fights over patents where we can’t tell what they mean, and the courts can’t tell what they mean, and even the patentees can’t tell you what they mean,” Kappos says.

Chapter 4—Faster, Cheaper, Smarter, Easier: Democratizing the Means of Production excerpt #1
Chapter 4: Faster, Cheaper, Smarter, Easier excerpt #2

As technology has grown, the tools of experts have come into the reach of the amateur.  Increasingly, the amateur is enabled to do things that had been previously guarded by experts.  Along the way, economic casualties are had, be it stock photographers threatened by iStockPhoto or typesetters by home printers and desktop publishing software.

Chapter 4: Faster, Cheaper, Smarter, Easier excerpt #3

Hawthorne Heights isn’t signed to a major record label.  They don’t have a giant marketing budget, nor a luxurious production and distribution model.  Yet, owing greatly to the tools afforded to them through the internet, namely Myspace, their most recent album debuted at number 3.

This is where things get interesting.  Why?  Because the entire music business is being overhauled, and once again, the big guys are losing to the ones at the bottom of the pyramid.  Though the excerpt does not delve into it, what is apparent is that the magic is in the long tail: the long tail of fans, of musicians, and record labels.  The classic model was based on one big band, supported by many fans, being nurtured and enabled by the horizontal and vertical resources of the big record label.  The big bang successes would usually make up for the big-budget fizzles.

In the past few years, there a been a remarkable change to this model.  All the other bands, those not chosen to be made into ‘the next big thing’, have found themselves a voice on the Internet.  They need neither the budget nor the promotional services which previously allowed major labels to control the market.  “Most up-and-coming bands don’t regard illegal peer-to-peer file sharing as piracy; they view it as a promotional and distribution channel”.  At the same time, the long tail of casual music fans have found music to be much more accessible as a hobby, and there’s something for everyone.  Sales records are no longer being broken, but more bands are getting a cut, more concerts are being attended, and more music is being listened to.  Yet, despite the exciting state of affairs, it comes as no surprise then that the RIAA is up in arms, when the tools that they’ve been using to get a chokehold on the business (promotion, production and distribution) are no longer necessary.

With a bit of free time my way, I’ll hopefully be able to catch up on a backlog of unfinished posts. To start, here’s an article by CBC News in Canada about Crowdsourcing (sorry, I’ve been sitting on that for a while). It’s quite a good, in-depth read, covering the usual Turk and Cambrian House, but also delving into the crowdsourced theory behind reCaptcha and (my academic hero) Luis von Ahn. Here’s how they define it:

It’s called crowdsourcing. The idea is to use the internet to get large numbers of people to help with a task.

They may do it for money — usually not much — or out of interest or simply because it’s fun.

Another mention of the term comes in a recent article titled “Facebook and Law“, looking at the effects that one Facebook group had in stalling the introduction new copyright laws in Canada.

Not only had tools like Facebook had an immediate effect on the government’s legislative agenda, but the community that developed around the group also led to a “crowdsourcing” of knowledge. Canadians from coast to coast shared information, posed questions, posted their letters to politicians, and started a national conversation on copyright law in Canada.

I like that the term ‘Crowdsourcing’ is becoming better understood not a a specific entity or fad, but rather as what it is: a word to describe something that couldn’t be adequately described in one word before.

As a follow-up to my short profile on the Mechanical Turk, Wired has published a story about Jim Gray, titled “Inside the High-Tech Hunt of a Missing Silicon Valley Legend“.

It’s an interesting story that I had regret writing so little about, so I recommend checking out the article for the full story — or as full as it can be.