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.