by David Alan Grier
Recent news about a distant family member revealed a profound insight into the role of communications in crowdsourcing. We’ve long accepted the fact that crowdsourcing has been expanding because the cost of communication has been declining. However, we rarely recognize that we need to carefully design our communications systems so that they allow the crowd to collaborate and communicate their ideas to us.
Like many of the fundamental lessons about crowdsourcing, this insight is not new. It came not from the newest startup in Silicon Valley or Seattle but from a Black church in the 1950s. My relation, George T. Grier, is a member of our family’s African-American wing. He learned the fundamentals of crowdsourcing while organizing his church’s usher staff.
Church ushering is very much a crowdsourcing activity. The ushers are volunteers with varying degrees of skill and commitment to the work. They need a certain amount of training to be good at their work but most of them will learn their skills on the job. The head usher, the director of crowdsourcing, needs to develop the right kinds of systems and incentives to make the crowd work as a focused group.
Mr. Grier made his contribution to crowdsourcing by inventing a silent method of communicating among the understaff. This method, which largely relies on hand signals, lets the ushers coordinate their activities without interfering with the sermon, the music or the other elements of the service. However, this system had two other advantages. First, it had a limited vocabulary and hence restricted the ushers to a certain kinds of conversations. They could communicate that someone was ill and needed assistance or that they needed more hymnals on the side pews but they couldn’t remark that the new young man in the second row was particularly nice looking or speculate on a football game that might be starting during the service.
The silent system proved to have a second benefit. It allowed the ushers to hold many conversations at once. It enabled them to address the needs in separate parts of the building without contacting the head usher. The ushers in one corner of the building could rally to help a young mother with fidgety children while those in another could come to the aid of a elder that seems to be having trouble breathing.
When we design any crowdsourcing process, we usually have to balance the two benefits that Mr. Grier created in his system of silent usher signals. We have to keep the crowd focused on the main goal for the process and yet we need to allow the members of the crowd to work together or take advantage of the opportunities that they may have. Not all communication systems achieve the same balance as the silent usher system. The systems supported by Amazon Mechanical Turk direct workers to specific tasks but discourage collaboration. Some of the innovation platforms encourage collaboration but can also allow workers to drift from the goal of the project. The crowd may be able to collaborate in a creative way to solve a problem but the problem that they solve may not be the one that the organizer originally posited.
We can even find a substantial difference between two communications systems that purport to do the same thing. Both the Republican and the Democratic parties have crowdfunding systems that are designed to raise money for the national campaign. As might be expected, the Democratic system is decentralized and gives power to local organizations. By contrast, the Republican system is more centralized and is designed to disseminate ideas from the party leaders.
Recent studies of the two fundraising systems suggest that the Democratic version is more effective. The difference between the two systems “is a systematic approach that gives digital [Democratic] staff members considerable authority,” explains Derek Willis in The New York Times. “They become responsible not simply for raising money but also for building a larger narrative around a candidacy.”
Of course, the difference between the two systems may be more fundamental than the way that they encourage or discourage communication. The Republican party might easily find that the decentralized messages of the Democratic system do not engage their members while the Democrats might find themselves confined if they used the Republican system. We are not all fitted for an office stool nor able to handle the chaos of an unstructured workspace. Yet the key lesson of Mr. Grier remains. When we attempt to solve a problem with crowdsourcing, we have to communicate with the crowd in a way that balances centralization and decentralization, a common message and grassroots methods. My relative solved the problem for church ushers, those that stand and serve. We need to solve it for each of our crowdsourcing activities.
About David Alan Grier
David Alan Grier is the author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies, When Computers Were Human and other books. He is an associate professor at the Center for International Science & Technology Policy at George Washington University.