Crowdsourcing to replace social networks? (UPDATED 5/14/13)

crowdsourcingMark Pesce writes in “This That and the Other Thing” the following:

“The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing (see also description later in post). The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.

“Uni [University] students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.

“It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.

“All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.”

He suggests that these e-connections and contributions can in effect tell us which restaurant can be trusted to eat at, which professor we can entrust to teach us a class.  In principle, one could use this to also pass on social reputation with pictures and names for community residents who had behaved in an untrustworthy manner so others could avoid them.  On its face it sounds like a persuasive argument and part of a strand that suggests that the new technology can always out-do what we used to do.  Assuming the software is effective at eliminating shills (as eBay or Amazon had to contend with — writers or sellers getting fake users or affiliated users from giving them great reviews), these kind of crowdsourcing techniques can be helpful.  Yelp‘s recommendations about restaurants are often good; and Amazon‘s recommendations are instructive.

What can’t these invisible, helping e-networks do?  1) get at the truth with contested theories of what happened; 2) tell you whether you should value A’s comments more than B’s (although in principle the software could rate the comments by friends in common or their reputation); 3) actually be useful for things beyond spreading information (trust, reciprocity, social support, etc.).

Pesce goes on to point out that the technology does have limits.  Technology brings us together in anarcho-syndicalism and offers the potential for community.  But what limits its effectiveness is that we have a collision between the e-crowd and community and community requires us to work together.  We want to copy and mimic what others have done, but that requires each of us to act for the good of others.

“But [our] laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.

And this…is..the message I really want to leave you with. You … are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.

And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”…I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.”

What Pesce doesn’t discuss is “social capital.”  This seems to be missing from his remarks.  Some of us may serve others in real space or electronically through the goodnesss of our hearts.  We’re do-gooders or e-do.gooders.  But others of us need to understand that these social ties hold us accountable to the group.  They make us more likely to do things for others because we are hardwired to provide more for people inside our circles than outside our circles.  That’s why we give more to our family than to strangers and help friends more than we do a tribe half-way around the world.  Social ties redefine our sense of ‘we’.

It’s hard to believe that exhortations to do good on the Internet, as important as they are, will achieve the optimal amount of communal action.  That is, after all, why commons are overgrazed and oceans are overfished.  Because too many in society realize that there is more to be had from overgrazing and overfishing now rather than letting someone else do it.

Social capital can also help police social norms (of working for others, of contributing, of not taking more than one’s share).  Experimental evidence shows that fairness also seems hardwired into our brains.  We are willing to punish others in experimental Ultimatum or Dictator Games from behaving in a selfish manner, even when it means that we the punisher gets less.

For more on Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe (from Wired) has an interesting new book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business (2008).

Definition: A company outsourcing a job traditionally served by employees and fills it through an open call to large undefined group of people, generally using on the internet.  People best qualified to do the job are not always the person that one would first think of to assign a job in a corporation.

CrowdSourcing builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds; in it, Howe identifies 4 ways in which groups can produce better results than individuals: collective intelligence, crowd creation, crowd voting, and crowd funding.

Note: Nobelist Danny Kahneman suggests that the real value of the wisdom of crowd is only when the error of people’s guesses or predictions are uncorrelated and this most likely to happen when we talk to others who disagree with us or are unlike us.

From BusinessWeek’s review of the “Widsom of Crowds” book: “In the first [category], collective intelligence, companies including Dell and gold-mining group Goldcorp ask people inside and outside the company to help solve problems and suggest new products, such as Dell‘s Linux-based computers. The second model, crowd creation, is used by businesses such as Current TV and Frito-Lay to create news segments and video ads. People vote for their favorite T-shirt design at apparel maker Threadless’ Web site, thereby illustrating crowd voting. Startups SellaBand and Kiva use the last model, crowdfunding, to underwrite new music labels and fund microloans to individuals.

“Howe’s best example is iStockphoto, a startup that is undermining the established stock-photo business. The community began in 2000 as a vehicle for hobbyists who wanted to trade their pics. Two years later, iStock began selling photos for 25 cents each to cover bandwidth costs. Clients flocked in, and in 2006, Getty Images bought the enterprise. Now, with 60,000 part-time photographers and illustrators on board, 3.5 million images in the bank, and 2 million customers, iStock is the world’s third-largest dealer of images.

“Howe sweeps away certain misapprehensions about such activity. While it’s true that most people who are involved don’t get paid, they still need incentives. At iStockphoto, that comes in the form of workshops in which people meet and share expertise. And Howe warns that not all crowds are created equal. For example, he suggests that sports teams would do better to use fantasy-league enthusiasts rather than scientists to handicap up-and-coming athletes. Perhaps the hardest lesson for businesses is the importance of including people with whom you don’t ordinarily work. Organizations reinforce similar approaches and inside-the-box thinking. When you’re looking for something truly different, the crowd can lead you down a less traveled path.”

While Howe praises this rise of the ‘virtual crowd’ — you used to have to actually assemble a crowd to benefit and now gee-whiz you can do it on the internet — I wonder whether despite benefits to corporations or individuals (like cheaper pictures on iStockPhoto or better predictions of what ads will work), we’ve lost the social capital inherent in actual crowds or the social capital built from these old-line processes.

If we are migrating to more CrowdSourcing we ought at least pursue what we do (at a minimum via the Internet) to actually bring this virtual crowd together (making creating e-events, maybe creating communities of interest as was the genesis of iStockPhoto, maybe if the virtual crowd is large enough, breaking it down by zip code and encouraging and facilitating pieces of the crowd getting together in real space).  What’s good for the goose is not always so for the gander, and CrowdSourcing is likely to lead to cheaper outcomes (for example photos) and often better, more democratic decisions, it portends to exacerbate the real losses we’ve seen in our true communities over the last generation.

10/7/09 update: Facebook, through Facebook Connect, now uses crowd-sourcing for foreign language translation, getting users to vote on which user-supplied translations are best for various phrases.  More here:


2 responses to “Crowdsourcing to replace social networks? (UPDATED 5/14/13)

  1. Love your blog, but I think I must be missing something here.

    These statements all seem wrong to me:

    What can’t these invisible, helping e-networks do?

    Invisible? Not at all. More visible that real world social networks.

    1) get at the truth with contested theories of what happened;

    Much better, more open form for debate than Ivory towers. The problem is that many of the leading thinkers don’t want to get their hands dirty with the masses, so they don’t engage. That will change with demographics and more bandwidth.

    2) tell you whether you should value A’s comments more than B’s (although in principle the software could rate the comments by friends in common or their reputation);

    You can already rate comments. Even without it, spend five minutes clicking around and searching about a commenter and you can make a pretty informed decision about their credibility.

    3) actually be useful for things beyond spreading information (trust, reciprocity, social support, etc.).

    Wha? The social web has all kinds of examples of these extrinsic elements or social capital. I think you’ll find that as bandwidth continues to increase, trust, reciprocity, social support will all manifest in even greater scale than present.

    Here is a post linking social capital to the social web –

  2. Great article. I’m personally pretty fascinated with the issue.

    I offer some more case studies and a link to a roundtable with Jeff Howe on the issue:

    One of the people at the roundtable suggested “We are Smarter than Me” to find even more case studies.

    Interesting blog, I’ve been attracted to the “Bowling Alone” thesis and how communities can get together virtually or otherwise to reconnect, create meaning, and find what we’ve collectively lost.


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