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.

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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.

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.

I was recently forwarded a link to ReCaptcha, and was stunned to realize that I have never written about it.  Stunned because ReCaptcha was one of the main sparks of my interest in crowdsourcing.

ReCaptcha is a tool out of Carnagie Mellon, headed by Luis von Ahn (mentioned previously here).  To understand reCaptcha, one needs to understand captchas.  A captcha is a human verification tool that displays an image with a string of warped characters.  The task is to write those characters into the input box.  Because of the complexity of image recognition, this task more or less confirms that you are a human and not a bot. Of course, spammers can hire low-wage captcha crackers, but captchas nonetheless introduce an enormous hurdle to online spam and other automated cons.

ReCaptcha is an improvement on the original concept.  Amongst other accessibility improvements, reCaptcha’s primary innovation is that it helps digitize old books.  That right, digitize old books.  Rather than offering randomly warped words, reCaptcha instead offers the user words from scanned books that the computer recognition is having trouble with.  This assists in the various efforts to digitize (and in the process preserve and recover) libraries of aging books.

The brilliance of this cannot be understated.  The tool takes an action that millions of people already need to do, and appropriates that manpower into something useful.  Perhaps the best parallel is to solar energy.  The sun is an energy source that is completely wasted in urban areas.  It is everywhere, constantly beaming this energy onto the earth, and the cleverness of solar cells allow is for people to capture this potential (constant and wasted) and convert it to something greatly useful.  Anybody who has ever been awed by solar energy can understand the exciting potential that reCaptcha represents in technology.

I’ve started a page listing crowdsourcing sites and initiative.  Find it here.

There’s some exciting posts coming up in the following weeks.  Many ideas are linked or cross-referenced, so I will post them with a greater regularity for convenience.

Until then, I wrote a short page about staying up-to-date.

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.