Crowdsourcing as a Model for Prob...
Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving An Introduction and Cases Daren C. Brabham University of Utah, USA Abstract / Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem-solving and production model that has emerged in recent years. Notable examples of the model include Threadless, iStockphoto, Inno- Centive, the Goldcorp Challenge, and user-generated advertising contests. This article provides an introduction to crowdsourcing, both its theoretical grounding and exemplar cases, taking care to distinguish crowdsourcing from open source production. This article also explores the possibilities for the model, its potential to exploit a crowd of innovators, and its potential for use beyond for- profit sectors. Finally, this article proposes an agenda for research into crowdsourcing. Key Words / collective intelligence / crowdsourcing / distributed problem solving / Goldcorp Challenge / InnoCentive / open source / iStockphoto / Threadless / wisdom of crowds There is an incredible story to be told about human ingenuity! The first step to its unfolding is to reject the binary notion of client/designer. The next step is to look to what is going on, right now. The old-fashioned notion of an individual with a dream of perfection is being replaced by distrib- uted problem solving and team-based multi-disciplinary practice. The reality for advanced design today is dominated by three ideas: distributed, plural, collaborative. It is no longer about one designer, one client, one solution, one place. Problems are taken up everywhere, solutions are developed and tested and contributed to the global commons, and those ideas are tested against other solutions. The effect of this is to imagine a future for design that is both more modest and more ambitious. (Mau, 2004: 17) We can take Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries��� claims a step further ��� from team-based and multi-disciplinary to fully, globally distributed ��� and come to terms with a creative industry that relies increasingly on crowdsourcing to find solutions to problems. Mau is correct in his estimation that problem solving is no longer the activity of the individual genius, but he is hesitant to imagine a problem-solving model that is so radically distributed beyond the boundaries of professionalism. The design team, as enlarged and diverse as it has become, is nothing like the crowd. Where design teams and other group collaborations rely on collections of experts, the wise crowd insists on Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies Copyright �� 2008 Sage Publications London, Los Angeles, New Delhi and Singapore Vol 14(1): 75���90 DOI: 10.1177/1354856507084420 http://cvg.sagepub.com ARTICLE 075-090 084420 Brabham (D) 11/1/08 09:57 Page 75
the presence of non-experts, on the presence of amateurs. Crowdsourcing, a distributed problem-solving model, is not, however, open-source practice. Problems solved and products designed by the crowd become the property of companies, who turn large profits off from this crowd labor. And the crowd knows this going in. And the Frankfurt boys roll in their graves. This article is an introduction to crowdsourcing ��� what it is, how it works, and its potential. As an emerging, successful, alternative business model, I hope to turn the model toward non-profit applications for health and social and environmental justice. Toward this end, I argue that crowdsourcing is substantially different from open-source production ��� and superior in many ways. I also argue that crowdsourcing is a legitimate, complex problem-solving model, more than merely a new format for holding contests and awarding prizes. In critiquing the theories which seem to predict crowdsourcing, I hope to establish an agenda for research on crowdsourcing so that some day we will have developed a model that can have profound influence in the way we solve our world���s most pressing social and environmental problems. Crowdsourcing Coined by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine (Howe, 2006f), the term crowdsourcing describes a new web-based business model that harnesses the creative solutions of a distributed network of individuals through what amounts to an open call for proposals. Howe offers the following definition: Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers. (2006a: 5) Howe further clarifies that ���it���s only crowdsourcing once a company takes that design, fabricates [it] in mass quantity and sell[s] it��� (2006b: 1). In other words, a company posts a problem online, a vast number of individuals offer solutions to the problem, the winning ideas are awarded some form of a bounty, and the company mass produces the idea for its own gain. To understand the workings of crowdsourcing, it is best to examine some of the most successful and profitable cases in a variety of industries. Threadless Threadless.com is a web-based t-shirt company that crowdsources the design process for their shirts through an ongoing online competition. The company formed when Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart met through an online design forum, both entered into a t-shirt design competition, and Nickell won. They formed skinnyCorp and its flagship property, Threadless, in late 2000 when Nickell was only 20 and DeHart only 19 years old (Nickell and DeHart, n.d.). Based in Chicago, skinnyCorp today is the umbrella company for OMG Clothing, Extra Tasty, Naked and Angry, Yay Hooray, and other message boards and businesses in the company���s mission: ���skinnyCorp creates communities��� (Our Ideas, n.d. skinnyCorp, n.d.). None of skinnyCorp���s other properties are as successful as Threadless, 76 CONVERGENCE VOL. 14 NO. 1 075-090 084420 Brabham (D) 11/1/08 09:57 Page 76
however, and none more true to the crowdsourcing definition as of June 2006, Thread- less was ���selling 60,000 T-shirts a month, [had] a profit margin of 35 per cent and [was] on track to gross $18 million in 2006���, all with ���fewer than 20 employees��� (Howe, 2006e). With its profits, Threadless has also made large donations to organizations such as the Red Cross in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Anyone may join the Threadless community free with a valid email address, and membership in the community ��� in the crowd ��� grants access to vote on designs or to submit them. To submit a design, community members download either an Adobe Flash or Adobe Photoshop template, follow the guidelines for image quality and number of colors, and upload their design back to Threadless. From there, designs are scored on a zero-to-five scale, with an option to check an ���I���d buy it!��� box, and a new design to be scored becomes available to the community. Designs remain available for voting for two weeks, and the highest scoring designs are selected by Threadless staff to be printed and made available for sale on the website. In a typical week there are at least three new shirts for sale and at least one reprinted shirt, reprinted by overwhelming demand from the community. For designer shirts, they are priced affordably, at around US$15, or US$10 during their frequent sales, all due to the low cost of designing them. Winning designers receive US$1,500 in cash and US$500 worth of Threadless t-shirts and gift certificates. However, US$2000 is a very low price for design services that yield such high profits. Threadless also boasts a street team (for promotional needs) and rewards its members with purchasing credits for referring sales by linking to the website or by submitting photos of themselves wearing Threadless shirts they own. iStockphoto iStockphoto.com is a web-based company that sells royalty-free stock photography, animations, and video clips. Calgary, Alberta-based iStockphoto was launched in February 2000, founded by Bruce Livingstone, who ���conceived the iStockphoto engine��� (Introduc- tion and Company Background, n.d.). To become a photographer for iStockphoto, one must fill out an online form, submit proof of identification, and submit three photographs for judging by the iStockphoto staff. If the photographs are technically sound, regardless of their content, applicants are typically admitted as photographers to the website. From that point, photographers may submit their photographs to the website to be stored in the databases under keywords. Clients seeking stock images ��� for use on websites, in brochures, in business presentations and so on ��� purchase credits (US $1 per credit) and start buying the stock images they want. Typical sizes and qualities of photographs can be purchased, royalty-free, from between one and five credits, with high resolution photographs, oversized images, and some longer video clips costing as many as 50 credits (Introduction to iStockphoto, n.d.). Photographers receive 20 per cent of the purchase price any time one of their images is downloaded (Frequently Asked Questions, n.d.), and some photographers, who become more involved members of the online community and typically end up donating their talents for screening applicants and maintaining the database, can begin to earn exclus- ive contracts with iStockphoto and get 40 per cent of the price of their sold work (Mack, 2006: 17). As long as photographs are in focus, free of dust specks and so forth, they will be accepted to the database, meaning anyone able to operate a camera can BRABHAM: CROWDSOURCING AS A MODEL FOR PROBLEM SOLVING 77 075-090 084420 Brabham (D) 11/1/08 09:57 Page 77