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Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call.

For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task (also known as community-based design[1] and distributed participatory design), refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm (see human-based computation), or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data (see also citizen science).

The term has become popular with businesses, authors, and journalists as shorthand for the trend of leveraging the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies to achieve business goals. However, both the term and its underlying business models have attracted controversy and criticisms.



The term "crowdsourcing" is a neologistic portmanteau of "crowd" and "outsourcing," first coined by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired magazine article "The Rise of Crowdsourcing".[2][3] Howe explains that because technological advances have allowed for cheap consumer electronics, the gap between professionals and amateurs has been diminished. Companies are then able to take advantage of the talent of the public, and Howe states that "It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing."

Projects which make use of group intelligence, such as the LazyWeb or the ESP Game, predate that word coinage by several years. Recently, the Internet has been used to publicize and manage crowdsourcing projects.


Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones. These best solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer—and the winning individuals in the crowd are sometimes rewarded. In some cases, this labor is well compensated, either monetarily, with prizes, or with recognition. In other cases, the only rewards may be kudos or intellectual satisfaction. Crowdsourcing may produce solutions from amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time, or from experts or small businesses which were unknown to the initiating organization.[4] Jeff Howe has differentiated four types of crowdsourcing strategies:

Perceived benefits of crowdsourcing include the following:

  • Problems can be explored at comparatively little cost, and often very quickly.
  • Payment is by results or even omitted (See this page on the German Wikipedia).
  • The organization can tap a wider range of talent than might be present in its own organization.[5]
  • By listening to the crowd, organizations gain first-hand insight on their customers' desires.
  • The community may feel a brand-building kinship with the crowdsourcing organization, which is the result of an earned sense of ownership through contribution and collaboration.

In his article, "Power of Crowdsourcing", Matt H. Evans contends that "Crowdsourcing taps into the global world of ideas, helping companies work through a rapid design process." This is usually available at relatively no cost, as people are always willing to share their ideas on a global scale.[6]

The difference between crowdsourcing and ordinary outsourcing is that a task or problem is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific other body. The difference between crowdsourcing and open source is that open source production is a cooperative activity initiated and voluntarily undertaken by members of the public. In crowdsourcing the activity is initiated by a client and the work may be undertaken on an individual, as well as a group, basis.[7] Other differences between open source and crowdsourced production relate to the motivations of individuals to participate.[7][8]

Crowdsourcing also has the potential to be a problem-solving mechanism for government and nonprofit use.[7] Urban and transit planning are prime areas for crowdsourcing.[9] One project to test crowdsourcing's public participation process for transit planning in Salt Lake City has been underway from 2008 to 2009, funded by a U.S. Federal Transit Administration grant.[10] Another notable application of crowdsourcing to government problem solving is the Peer to Patent Community Patent Review project for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.[11]

Web-based crowdsourcing

In a Leah DeVun interview of Andrea Grover, DeVun asks Grover if web-based collaborative projects tend to be different from face-to-face projects. Grover states that individuals tend to be more open because they are not being physically judged or scrutinized.[12] This ultimately allows for well-designed artistic projects because individuals are less conscious, or maybe even less aware, of scrutiny towards their work. In an online atmosphere there is more attention being given to the project rather than communication with other individuals.

An important example of web-based crowdsourcing, mentioned also in Howe's original book, is social bookmarking (also called collaborative tagging). In social bookmarking systems, users assign tags to resources shared with other users, which given rise to a type of information organisation that emerges from this crowdsourcing process. Other important examples are web-based idea competitions.[13] Recent research[14] has shown that consensus around stable distributions and a simple form of shared vocabularies does indeed emerge in such systems, even in the absence of a central controlled vocabulary.


"Collaboratition" is a neologism to describe a type of crowdsourcing used for problems that require a collaborative or cooperative effort to be successful, but use competition as a motivator for participation or performance. A good example of collaboratition is the 2009 DARPA experiment in crowdsourcing. DARPA placed 10 balloon markers across the United States and challenged teams to compete to be the first to report the location of all the balloons. Collaboration of efforts was required to complete the challenge quickly and in addition to the competitive motivation of the contest as a whole, the winning team (MIT, in less than seven hours) established its own "collaborapetitive" environment to generate participation in their team.[15]

Another form of collaboration can be found in the term of crowdfunding, inspired from crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding collaboration takes on a different role, describes the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network pooling their money together, usually via the Internet, in order to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations. Crowdfunding occurs for any variety of purposes, from disaster relief to citizen journalism to artists seeking support from fans, to political campaigns. Age of Stupid is perhaps the most publicized and successful case to-date; this film raised $1.2 million via crowd funding, and also used crowd sourcing to distribute and exhibit it around the world.[16]

Early examples

Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed provides early examples of crowdsourcing in theatrical performances. Boal's models give emphasis to the participants, and the influence their collaboration has on their performances.

In 1994, Northeast Consulting complied a database of trends in the marketplace. This database was collected from numerous sources, offering an example of early crowdsourcing.[17]

The Internettunnel in Leidschendam/Netherlands by Zwarts & Jansma Architects and artist Hans Muller is another early example of crowdsourcing. Opened in 1998, people could feed the LED-display via the Internet with their own texts. Also, words could be blocked for a certain time. The public became its own dynamic filter, preventing, for example, racist remarks.

Recent examples


Andrea Grover, curator of the 2006 crowdsourcing art show, Phantom Captain: Art and Crowdsourcing, explained in an interview that crowdsourcing eliminates a financial barrier that prohibits most people from participating in art, as "Internet real estate is essentially free." Grover finds that the primary appeal of crowdsourcing is the satisfaction that is obtained through working with a community.

Individuals who participate in crowdsourcing projects are often anonymous, and Grover states that "people reveal more when they’re not face-to-face," because "there’s a certain security in not being physically present," which adds to the appeal of crowdsourcing.


The ethical, social, and economic implications of crowdsourcing are subject to wide debate. For example, author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, in an interview published in Wired News, expressed ambivalence about the term and its implications.[18] Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is also a vocal critic of the term.[19]

Some reports have focused on the negative effects of crowdsourcing on business owners, particularly in regard to how a crowdsourced project can sometimes end up costing a business more than a traditionally outsourced project.

Some possible pitfalls of crowdsourcing include the following:

  • Added costs to bring a project to an acceptable conclusion.
  • Increased likelihood that a crowdsourced project will fail due to lack of monetary motivation, too few participants, lower quality of work, lack of personal interest in the project, global language barriers, or difficulty managing a large-scale, crowdsourced project.
  • Below-market wages[20] or no wages at all. Barter agreements are often associated with crowdsourcing.
  • No written contracts, non-disclosure agreements, or employee agreements or agreeable terms with crowdsourced employees.
  • Difficulties maintaining a working relationship with crowdsourced workers throughout the duration of a project.
  • Susceptibility to faulty results caused by targeted, malicious work efforts.

Though some critics believe crowdsourcing exploits or abuses individuals for their labor, studies into the motivations of crowds have not yet shown that crowds feel exploited. On the contrary, many individuals in the crowd experience significant benefits from their participation in crowdsourcing applications.[21][22][23][24] Further authors discuss both risks and rewards of using crowdsourcing as a means of balancing global inequalities.[25]

In Leah DeVun's interview of Andrea Grover the question, "Do you think that crowdsourcing removes an economic barrier that might prevent people from participating in art?" Grover's reply was yes. Grover went on to explain that crowdsourcing was originally based on economics. It was designed for businesses to be cost-efficient and lower their expenditures.[26]

Grover also provided an example of a crowdsourcing project that went astray. was a website where users would ask questions, and receive answers from other users visiting the site. It eventually degraded into people asking questions for pornographic purposes. Grover relates that "maybe just asking a question is too simple. Maybe there has to be more complexity."[27]

Historical examples

See also


  1. Crowd Sourcing Turns Business On Its Head
  2. David Whitford (2007-03-22). "Hired Guns on the Cheap". Fortune Small Business. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  3. Jeff Howe (June 2006). "The Rise of Crowdsourcing". Wired. Retrieved 2007-03-17. 
  4. Jeff Howe (June 2006). "The Rise of Crowdsourcing". Wired. Retrieved 2007-03-17. 
  5. Noveck, Simone. (2009). Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful, p. 63.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Daren C. Brabham. (2008). "Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases", Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), pp. 75-90.
  8. Daren C. Brabham. (2008). "Moving the Crowd at iStockphoto: The Composition of the Crowd and Motivations for Participation in a Crowdsourcing Application", First Monday, 13(6)
  9. Daren C. Brabham. (2009). "Crowdsourcing the Public Participation Process for Planning Projects", Planning Theory, 8(3), pp. 242-262.
  10. U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Public Transportation Participation Pilot Program. "PTP-3 FY 2008 Projects: Crowdsourcing Public Participation in Transit Planning"
  11. Peer-to-Patent Community Patent Review Project. "Peer to Patent Community Patent Review", at
  12. DeVun, Leah. "Looking at how crowds produce and present art." Wired News. Web. 19 Nov. 2009. <>.
  13. * Jan Marco Leimeister, Michael Huber, Ulrich Bretschneider, Helmut Krcmar (2009): Leveraging Crowdsourcing: Activation-Supporting Components for IT-Based Ideas Competition. In: Journal of Management Information Systems (2009), Volume: 26, Issue: 1, Publisher: M.E. Sharpe Inc., Pages: 197-224, ISSN: 07421222, DOI: 10.2753/MIS0742-1222260108 [1]
    • Winfried Ebner; Jan Marco Leimeister; Helmut Krcmar (2009): Community Engineering for Innovations -The Ideas Competition as a method to nurture a Virtual Community for Innovations. In: R&D Management, 39 (4),pp 342-356 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9310.2009.00564.x [2]
  14. V. Robu, H. Halpin, H. Shepherd Emergence of consensus and shared vocabularies in collaborative tagging systems, ACM Transactions on the Web (TWEB), Vol. 3(4), article 14, ACM Press, September 2009.
  18. Cove, Sarah (2007-07-12). "What Does Crowdsourcing Really Mean?". Wired News (Assignment Zero). Retrieved 2008-02-19. 
  19. McNichol, Tom (2007-07-02). "The Wales Rules for Web 2.0". Business 2.0. Retrieved 2008-02-19. "I find the term 'crowdsourcing' incredibly irritating," Wales says. "Any company that thinks it's going to build a site by outsourcing all the work to its users not only disrespects the users but completely misunderstands what it should be doing. Your job is to provide a structure for your users to collaborate, and that takes a lot of work." 
  20. Sherwood Stranieri (October 2006). "Beer Money: Mechanical Turk on Campus". Paylancers. Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  21. Daren C. Brabham. (2008). "Moving the Crowd at iStockphoto: The Composition of the Crowd and Motivations for Participation in a Crowdsourcing Application", First Monday, 13(6), available online at
  22. Daren C. Brabham. (2009, August). "Moving the Crowd at Threadless: Motivations for Participation in a Crowdsourcing Application", Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Boston, MA.
  23. Katri Lietsala & Atte Joutsen. (2007). "Hang-a-rounds and True Believers: A Case Analysis of the Roles and Motivational Factors of the Star Wreck Fans", In A. Lugmayr, K. Lietsala, & J. Kallenbach (Eds.), MindTrek 2007 Conference Proceedings (pp. 25-30). Tampere, Finland: Tampere University of Technology.
  24. Karim R. Lakhani, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse & Jill A. Panetta. (2007). The value of openness in scientific problem solving (Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 07-050), available online at
  25. Roth, S. (2008): Open Innovation AcrossThe Prosperity Gap: An Essay On Getting The Caucasus Back Into The European Innovation Society. In: International Black Sea University Scientific Journal, Vol 2., No. 2, pp. 5-20,
  26. DeVun, Leah. "Looking at how crowds produce and present art." Wired News. Web. 19 Nov. 2009. <>.
  27. DeVun, Leah. "Looking at how crowds produce and present art." Wired News. Web. 19 Nov. 2009. <>.


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