What Is Crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourced workers together in office space

Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Crowdsourcing as a practice has been around a lot longer than the actual term, which dates back only to 2006 according to Merriam-Webster. It entails using many disparate individuals to perform services or to generate ideas or content. Since the practice came to be known as crowdsourcing, it has become popular on the internet.

The concept is built on an early 20th-century theory sometimes referred to as the "wisdom of crowds." The idea is that a large group of people can collectively provide surprising insight or value as a workforce. It's rooted in the example of British scientist Sir Francis Galton, who in 1907 asked more than 700 people at a county fair to guess the weight of an ox. Not one individual guessed right, but the average of all the guesses provided a number almost identical to the ox's weight.

Who Uses Crowdsourcing?

Some businesses use crowdsourcing as a means of accomplishing specific tasks or generating ideas. While traditional outsourcing involves businesses choosing a specific contractor or freelancer for a job, crowdsourcing work is spread across a large, often undefined group.

In addition to the completion of tasks, crowdsourcing also can provide valuable data based on the actions of large groups of people. For example, the sort of information or content that people seek on sites like Google or YouTube can help businesses gauge public interest in online content or other products and services.

Aside from businesses, it's also common for small nonprofits or other community organizations with limited budgets to use crowdsourcing as a means of spreading a message or promoting an event.

Perhaps the most common example of crowdsourcing is in software development. Many software programs are "open source," which means that the actual code is available for programmers to see and review, allowing them to make changes or additions to the software. OpenOffice, which is a productivity suite compatible with Microsoft Office products, is one of the more well-known examples of such open-source software. Because it is developed through a form of crowdsourcing, it also is free to download and use.

Pros and Cons

Like any venture, crowdsourcing comes with pros and cons. Before embarking on a crowdsourcing campaign, it's a good idea to consider a major benefit and a major drawback associated with the practice:

  • Pro: It can be much cheaper than hiring a professional in a traditional manner. For example, if a business wants to develop a new logo or slogan, it might put the concept in front of its customer base, challenging people to come up with ideas or designs that could be used. This method can be good for achieving positive results because the crowd might generate ideas that no one would have discovered through a more traditional approach—and the cost might be no more than rewarding those with the best ideas with discounts or some other perks.
  • Con: Control of the process is limited. Following the same example of the new logo or design, a traditional approach would allow the company to oversee the process from beginning to end. If there's even a slight miscommunication with the crowd in a crowdsourcing campaign, the project can go in the wrong direction quickly and might result in nothing more than a waste of time.

Crowdsourcing Marketplaces

Many forms of crowdsourcing are a means of attracting free labor. By seeking input from the crowd, businesses or other organizations bypass the process of hiring someone to do the desired job. There are forms of crowdsourcing, though, that involve getting paid.

Crowdsourcing marketplaces on the web, also known as "micro-labor" sites, provide opportunities for groups of people to perform small tasks or "micro-jobs" for small fees. Crowdsourcing websites put out open calls on behalf of clients who need microtasks performed. For example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk offers virtual tasks that can be done online from home, and TaskRabbit connects people to complete virtual tasks in addition to running errands or doing odd jobs in person.

Microworkers on these sites are not necessarily providing the same form of wisdom as those in other forms of crowdsourcing, such as with open-source software. Crowdsourcing marketplaces are different because each micro-worker is simply following instructions from a crowdsourcer. However, companies that use micro-labor often label these tasks as crowdsourcing jobs and do still receive some of the benefits they could get from a large crowd. If they are putting out calls for many small tasks to be completed and getting responses from many micro-workers, that's still much different than hiring one or a few full-time employees to perform each of those tasks.

The company still gets the benefit of multiple viewpoints over time from multiple sources.