What Is Crowdsourcing?

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Crowdsourcing is using many disparate individuals to perform services, generate ideas or content, typically in an online setting. 

Traditionally, crowdsourcing has not only used the "wisdom of crowds"--a theory first posited in the early 1900s--to collect information, but to accomplished tasks utilizing the paid or unpaid labor of crowds as well. Similar to outsourcing, crowdsourcing solicits labor from a group outside an organization. It is different from outsourcing in that the the individuals in the crowdsourcing group choose to work on the project, rather than being chosen by the organization. The work is spread across a large, often undefined group not funneled to a specific set of workers.

Merriam-Webster cites the first use of the word as being in 2006, and this 2007 CBS News article explains crowdsourcing “tapping into the collective intelligence of the public at large to complete business-related tasks that a company would normally either perform itself or outsource to a third-party provider. Yet free labor is only a narrow part of crowdsourcing's appeal.”

The article goes on to explain that beyond free labor, crowdsourcing allows for collection of a new kind of marketing data direct from the consumers. Examples of this type of free crowdsourcing cited are websites like Wikipedia and YouTube and the development of open-source software.

Though the practice of crowdsourcing predates the Internet, the term is newer. And as with everything on the Internet, it is changing: Crowdsourcing is not limited to free labor, and the wisdom of those crowds are not always fully employed.

The crowdsourcing definition Wired's Jeff Howe uses on his 2010 blog Crowdsourcing.com is: "Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call." This makes no statement about paying or not paying those participating in crowdsourcing, but certainly outsourcing is a labor-related business practice.

Crowsourcing Marketplaces

Today, there are crowdsourcing marketplaces, also known as "microlabor" sites, in which groups of people perform small tasks or "micro jobs." Each are paid a small amount per task. Crowdsourcing websites put out the open call on behalf of clients who need the micro tasks performed. Examples of these include Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which offers virtual tasks done online from home, or TaskRabbit, which connects people to do errands and odd jobs in person as well as virtual tasks.

These "microworkers" are not necessarily providing the same wisdom that the earlier forms of crowdsourcing, such as with open-source software, did because each are simply following instructions from the crowdsourcer. However, this is how companies who use microlabor often label these jobs, as crowdsourcing jobs.

Related Definitions:

  • Microlabor - Similar to and sometimes used synonymously with crowdsourcing, microlabor is paid, though usually small amounts.
  • Task Site - Online forums that connect buyers and sellers of small services.
  • Bid sites - On these Internet sites, workers bid on projects in a way similar to microlabor, though the difference is the pay scale and the complexity of the projects.
  • BPO - Business process outsourcing is not the same as crowdsourcing because BPOs typically hire employees or regular contractors for these jobs.
  • Data Entry - Some data entry companies employ spread larger projects across large groups of people in a fashion similar to crowdsourcing.
  • Outsourcing - Crowdsourcing is a form of outsourcing.

Similar Terms:

crowdsource, crowdsourcer, wisdom of crowds, microlabor, micro tasks, micro-workers, micro jobs


Alternate Spellings: crowd sourcing, crowd-sourcing