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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Crowd-Sourcing Is the New Business, Politics and Arts Democracy

Crowd-Sourcing Is the New Business, Politics and Arts Democracy

The internet has provided many innovations. Now comes the harnessing of collective wisdom of untold numbers of people to solve problems, create new ideas.

In the UK, in the months before the March 2011 Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, opened an ‘online portal’ to accept suggestions for financial changes from anybody who wanted to log on. How many did that may only be known by civil servants, but it’s an example of a new phenomenon: crowd participation.

Businesses, artists and politicians are waking up to the natural corollary of universal social networking. If people have suggestions, grouches/grumbles, lateral thinking, they can come up with ideas others haven’t thought of.

In the early 2000s, Web 2.0 was vaguely ‘using the web as a platform’. Now it’s a web democracy about the production and selection of ideas. In an essay (2009), investor and programmer Paul Graham said amateurs surpass professionals. Wikipedia was an illustration of this, he argued: ‘it’s free and good enough’. The web now decides what is news and what will be read, rather than editors or old-media publications.

People wanted to buy individual tunes rather than whole albums or CDs. People want to blog and tweet, saying whatever they want, however trivial. People-power demanded web evolution, with more free stuff, to be able to eat, holiday, work, entertain and date through the web. Even if most people agree about something, shades of agreement are many. This is where Web 2.0 is online democracy in action.

Business Crowd-Sourcing

In March 2011, Freelancing Matters, the publication of Professional Contractors Group, published an exposition of how far crowd-sourcing has penetrated business. It cited Nokia, who in 2010 held a Nokia Make My App competition inviting anybody in the world to submit app ideas. They received nearly 8000, and took up thirteen to develop.

Nokia’s Head of Crowd-Sourcing, Concepting and Innovation, Pia Erkinheimo, was quoted as saying that Nokia had over sixty thousand employees, but could plug into the thoughts of four million members of Nokia Forum. Crowd-sourcing does not simply canvass opinion and ideas, it uses ‘platforms that interact with human behaviour’.

It’s human behaviour, analysed through complex algorithms by engineers, economists and anthropologists, that makes rapid innovation. Erkinheimo was further quoted by Freelancing Matters as saying” “With crowd-sourcing we are creating a place for lucky accidents, surprising idea combinations’.

Other companies cited included: pharmaceutical manufacturers Eli Lilly who funded access to brainpower outside the company; Boeing, Dupont and Proctor & Gamble who post scientific problems and invite ‘seekers’ to solve them, paying in the process. Some oil spill recovery problems were posted in 2007. One was solved by an engineer from outside the oil industry who proposed a solution from his own (concrete) experience.

Idea Bounty is an intermediary site that links businesses with the global population to source new, innovative thinking. Legal, programming and engineering companies use such systems increasingly, and as more sophisticated technology comes on stream, it will become business commonplace. Naked Wines uses collective power of customers to commission wines from suppliers on an online platform unrestricted by physical limitations.

Political Crowd-Sourcing

Emailing, tweeting and other network structures are already means of conveying individual opinions in a mass form to politicos. Elections themselves are large-scale opinion polls; a government referendum taps views on specific issues. What is new and different, is that the people’s representatives are inviting voters to input directly and frequently into policy making.

An MP presenting an argument in the House of Commons has added weight if he/she can say: ‘I have received this or that collective opinion from constituents….’ Political parties sound out opinions of focus groups and targetted voters, in order to develop/hone policies. Now they do it on a continuous basis, a massive scale.

Still smarting from their 2010 election defeat, the British Labour Party launched a spring 2011 offensive to millions of voters (even those their records showed did not support them) to harness thoughts, reactions and priorities of voters responding at work, home and in their neighbourhoods. Nothing startling there; what’s new is that their new policies presumably will respond to scientifically-interpreted mass thinking.

Arts Crowd-Sourcing

In early 2009, crime novelist James Patterson published, AirBorne. It was described by Sarah Perez on Read Write Web as a ‘crowd-written’ work, the first and last chapters written by him, with the 28 chapters between composed by different authors. She said: ‘With the release of this book, it appears the Web 2.0 movement of collaborative writing is about to hit mainstream’.

One site to promote entirely free online novels and cyberbooks in most genres is where authors publish ‘to promote their work, seek representation and/or develop a following’. That is different from Corduroy Mansions, a series of novelscreated by Alexander McCall Smith from 2008, where Daily Telegraph readers submitted sections based on characters and settings he created, and he rewrote them.

The product was published daily in paper, website, podcast and finally in hardback. This was crowd-writing too. The Telegraph wrote: ‘An entertaining mix of characters is no novelty for Mr McCall Smith’s fans, but the online medium has lent a new intimacy and immediacy to his work’.

Kate Mossman of The Times (March 2011) reported that experimental songwriter Imogen Heap was making a ‘piece of music inspired by sounds and words uploaded by fans’, called Heapsong1 after a press story of a man seen cycling in vain from the Japanese tsunami. Public would contribute artwork and a video for it. A striking match, dishwasher, boiling kettle, a cardboard box were contributed for Heap to weave into new music.

Mossman reckoned that crowd-sourcing, pulling in fans to inspire and physically construct works, may be the future of music production. Maroon5, Coca-Cola and Facebook teamed up to make a song in 24 hours via live webstream. Like improvisers on stage reacting to audience suggestion, or mashing all sorts of artists like choirs, techno and orchestras to make albums, concerts and videos, people are not socially alone when part of a creative process.

If, as the old adage runs: ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’, crowd wisdom is not without disaster potential. However, it’s here to stay. It will evolve using old and new and become ubiquitous. Until the next big thing.

First published on Suite 101, 2nd April 2011.

Image: Do Crowds Really Have Collective Wisdom? – BenFranske

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