Negatives


For a person sorting through this blog, you may have noticed a pattern: I rarely write about services founded on crowdsourcing as a business model.  I write about small experiments, or incidental crowdsourcing, but not on the myriad of crowdsourcing startups that have appeared since this blog began over a year ago.

There’s a reason for this: they rarely interest me.

There’s a time and a place for crowdsourcing, and what I love is when it is used to the achieve something that cannot otherwise be created.  There’s also a soft spot for cleverness in concept.  However, we increasingly see social for social’s sake.

Now, bad ideas are only a fraction of sites. Many others are simply not thought out in a way that the can be successful and, unfortunately for sites built on a foundation of crowds, success and usefulness are invariably linked.

I want crowdsourcing as business to suceed—I really do—but thus far it has been most successful by accident or by incident.  THAT is where the story is: in understanding this phenomenon.  Clearly we have the tools, but are still working on the trade.

Cumulus weather boxSometimes, Crowdsourcing isn’t the answer. Cute new experiment cumul.us is one of these instances.

What makes it simple and accurate is that it collects weather forecasts from several sources and combines them together to give you a more accurate average, using the idea of the “wisdom of crowds”. In short, cumul.us is the “wisdom of clouds”. Not only is there data from meteorological sources, but people can make predictions themselves.

Sounds okay, right? The problem is that meteorological sources are much more advanced than human predictions. This site’s purpose is akin to having a crowdsourced calculator, where users pitch in on what the actual answer might be if the computer gets it wrong. Meteorological predications are something fully embedded in calculation, and while experts help, the common human touch is absolutely unnecessary. The other function of the site if for users to say what they’ll be wearing (jeans, skirt, etc.) another function that needs no crowd mentality whatsoever.

Crowdsourcing is exciting and shows phenomenal potential for future development of society. However, as cumul.us fails to utilize, a useful crowdsourcing model should follow these rules:

  • the task being replaced is predominantly abstract (cognitive) rather than logical i.e. image semantics
  • the wisdom of the crowds should show improvement over the wisdom of one i.e. Wikipedia

A recurring criticism of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is that it is misused as a virtual sweatshop. In the Salon article titled I Make $1.45 a Week and Love It, it is pointed out that salaries under $600 do not have to be reported to the IRS by companies, but all earnings are supposed to by workers. “What Amazon is trying to do is create the virtual day laborer hiring hall on the global scale to bid down wage rates to the advantage of the employer,” labour activist Marcus Courtney says in the Salon article.

Blaming Amazon is pretty off the mark, as I truly believe the Turk was not founded for malicious business but rather as an academic pet project by CEO Jeff Bezos — consider his investment in human-powered search ChaCha as proof (Artificial Intelligence, With Help From Humans).

However, there’s no denying that there are misuse of the service for cheap labour is quite common. The most despicable example that I have seen in the past few weeks is that of APC’s teleclass transcription. Consider the following screenshot:

An hour’s content transcribed for $2.26?! Ridiculous. Even the most skilled typist would be probably making about a dollar an hour (my qualitative research professor a few years back estimated 4 hours transcription time for every hour of content).

Humourously, the company states on their website that “using the latest transcription equipment, (they) can accurately trascribe your teleclasses or webinar” (emphasis added by me). Sure, the company should not exist —it seems like one of those misguided attempts by lazier people not to get a real job after school, where a person prints some silly business cards and labels themselves “President and CEO”. Yet, this litter is an important thing to acknowledge in assessing micropayment crowdsourcing today, and how to continue it in the future.

The next ‘Cons of the Turk’ will look at Internet spam.

One last side note in defining “crowdsourcing”. Though its root word of ‘outsourcing’ often implies the transfer of work to cheaper employees, this is not a quality implicit in ‘crowdsourcing’. Rather, what it inherits from its root is the sense of displacing a traditional job, in this case by creating a crowd-modeled alternative meant to improve on it. Hopefully that clears up some confusion.