Today’s post comes from David Alan Grier, crowdsourcing expert and author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies. He tackles the question of who makes up the crowd. Check out his previous post for Owler.
Once you begin to understand the nature of crowdsourcing, and the fact that it is not limited to the modern technologies of the Internet and mobile apps, you start to see it in the most unusual places. These unusual applications can wander quite far from the common versions that we currently see embodied in Amazon Mechanical Turk, Innocentive or Kickstarter. However, when we take a careful look at such applications, we often get a better understanding of how crowdsourcing works and how it balances the interests of both the crowd and those that manage the process.
Perhaps one of the more surprising applications for crowdsourcing is the Oxford English Dictionary, the scholarly tome that describes the origin and evolving use of all English words. The OED, as it is commonly called by scholars, seems to be an unusual application for crowdsourcing because it seems to require such scholarly expertise. First, it was created in the late 19th a very sophisticated book, not the kind of reference that might be able to use the contributions from volunteers. It traces the origin of every word back to its ancient roots, gives a careful semantic analysis of each term, and provides examples of how the word has been used through history. However, the book was not only crowdsourced, it probably could not have been produced any other way.
If you have never seen an entry in the OED, you will find that it looks something like:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈkraʊdˌsɔːsɪŋ/ , U.S. /ˈkroʊdˌsɔ(ə)rsɪŋ/
Etymology: < crowd + sourcing n. at source v.1 Derivatives, after outsourcing n.
The practice of obtaining information or services by soliciting input from a large number of people, typically via the Internet and often without offering compensation.
2006 J. Howe in Wired June 179/1 The rise of crowdsourcing…Smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd… It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.
2007 Financial Times 10 Jan. 12/1 Crowdsourcing allows companies to tap the skills and knowledge of internet users to carry out discrete tasks, generate valuable new ideas or solve specific business problems.
2010 Sci. Amer. (U.K. ed.) Apr. 9/2 Web-based scientific collaborations and even ‘crowdsourcing’ are now common.
2012 A. Crowe Disasters 2.0 xi. 213 ABC acknowledged that since their correspondents and reporters could not be everywhere, there was a strong need to utilizing crowdsourcing to fill information gaps about the event.
The OED editors recruited a crowd of 800 volunteers to read collect examples of words. These volunteers read books, newspapers, and magazines, identified interesting usages of words and sent their examples through the mail to the editors. These slips of paper were sorted in a small outbuilding called the “scriptorium”, which had a wall of 1,029 pigeon holes to store the slips.
Many of the volunteers had qualities that we commonly find in crowds. They had an interest in words and some familiarity of the information needed to create a dictionary, but they lacked the resources or social standing to pursue a career in writing or editing. Some were teachers. Many were clerics. More than a few were women with no other way to have a public role in any activity.
As is true with all crowdsourcing projects, the crowd needed to be managed. The official history noted that volunteers preferred to work on rare and exotic words, such as “abusion” rather than the simpler term “abuse”. Forty-nine years passed before they completed the work for the final word, zythum.
The lessons that we can find in the crowdsourcing of the OED are common to all crowdsourcing. Most importantly, the editors learned that crowdsourcing needed to be carefully managed and that the crowd needed to be renewed. Not a single volunteer was able to work for the entire lifetime of the project. Each year, the editors had to find new volunteers, train them, and bring them into the crowd.
Ultimately, it was the only way to get the job done.
David Alan Grier
David Alan Grier is the author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies and When Computers Were Human.