Tall, lanky and a bit geeky, it's hard to imagine Harvard Nieman Fellow Jeff Howe banging elbows with punks half his age in the moshpits of the Warped Tour. But that's exactly what the Wired journalist and author of the recent book Crowdsourcing did in 2005. He wanted to see what the kids are like these days.
Howe discovered a culture of "promiscuous creativity," according to his talk today at a Mediabistro conference on user-generated content. He said that young people are less apt to describe themselves by a narrow vocation (think "the" filmmaker, artist or teacher of past generations), and are more likely to be engaged in a fluid and ever-growing array of creative pursuits, from video making to designing websites, inking tattoos, blogging and much more. "Even those playing in front of 2,000 people don't think of themselves as musicians, they're 'playing music,'" said Howe.
Unlike his generation, Howe added, technology itself isn't interesting to most of these kids. "What they care about is what they can do with it," he said. Howe extends this to web 2.0. Don't think of your base as "users," or that they're "making content," he cautioned. "The cardinal rule of crowdsourcing is ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community."
Answering an audience question on how websites or other organizations can first start a functioning community, Howe said the secret is to offer them something they value, not to just assume that people will want to work for free. For example, he pointed to what he called "essentially a failure" in crowdsourced journalism, Assignment Zero, which he had worked on with Jay Rosen of NYU and my friend Dave Cohn, who also helped with research on Howe's book. "The mistake is asking people to write stories. No one wants to do that, that's like asking them to redo term papers," Howe told a small group of listeners. Instead, Howe's message is to keep it simple when you're asking for community involvement.
That's the same message Ben Huh, CEO of the insanely popular I Can Has Cheezburger?, gave the Mediabistro conference the day before. Huh describes himself as fundamentally lazy, and argues that most everyone else is too. Starting with the goal of "making people happy for five minutes a day," the network of 25 sites about goofy cat photos, weird accidents and Excel-style charts riffing on pop culture has built a business to the tune of 1 billion pageviews every four months, and 12 million monthly unique visitors. "Ask yourself what would I want to do if I came to your website for only 40 seconds, which is being generous," said Huh.
The secret of all those goofy LOL cats (see some green LOL cats I rounded up here) is that Huh and the original founders of the site (who sold it to him) have always kept the upload/creation process extremely simple, so anyone can do it.
To Huh, the goal of a business should be to "eliminate distractions and let the users dictate your goals. Think, 'If I could work for only four hours a week, what would I do?'" It's the same idea as Jeff Jarvis's rule of "do what you do best and link to the rest."
Howe coined the term crowdsourcing (he first thought it a "silly hipsterism," but it caught on after his Wired editors liked the word better than his story pitch), and he gave several examples of it at work, the first being major changes in the stock photo business. After a Canadian designer decided to upload his none-to-impressive photos to a new site he created, iStockphoto, and trade rights to them with other users for their images, something profound happened. A community developed, started talking to each other, and soon the founder had to charge a quarter for each image download to defray his considerable server expenses. Now iStockphoto is a profitable, and rapidly growing, arm of Getty Images, and the price of stock photos has plummeted from $300 an image to $1, while thousands of amateur and pro shutterbugs from around the world are constantly uploading fresh work. A few have even made serious money.
More Than Just Funny Fotos and Fails
It's not just about photos or funny cat captions, either (hey Ben Huh is actually allergic to cats!). Eli Lilly's Innocentive is a platform for some of the world's top researchers to post thorny questions that elude their teams. Anyone can weigh in with solutions, and can receive some royalty payments for their trouble. Guess what? It works. According to Howe, a Harvard review of the project found a 30% solution rate, quite impressive when you consider how difficult some of the requests are, at the cutting edge of science.
And the top problem solver, who has allegedly made some serious cash? He's an HVAC installer in smalltown Ontario. He had to drop out of his PhD physics program some years ago to care for family, but now he works with multi-million dollar labs solving problems in biotech, chemistry and other areas.
There are crowdsourced clothes (Threadless), shoes (John Fluevog) and plenty of examples from citizen science, including a revolution in ornithology data collection (there are supposedly 50 million birders in America, according to USA Today, so Cornell's tapping of only a small percentage has yielded some big results). In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson describes the case of a rare astronomical phenomenon documented by a pair of amateur skywatchers an ocean away.
Is There a Power User Problem?
It's no secret to anyone who spends time on a social website that influence isn't distributed equally. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, recently said his company may soon get rid of the suggested user list, because of the unfair coronation it creates. Ben Huh told the Mediabistro conference that five percent of his users submit seventy percent of his content, and it seems like an even smaller percentage have their submissions featured.
On social news site Digg (a site I frequent), there has long been anguish about the influence of "power users." In fact, on a recent podcast of The Drill Down, Muhammad Saleem suggested that Digg has been trying for years to more evenly distribute participation. It's especially difficult on a site in which people do exactly what Jeff Howe said we wouldn't: that is, spend "five or six hours a day contributing on the site." It can take about that much to become a true power user on Digg, and there aren't that many people with that kind of commitment.
Still, it's clear that crowdsourcing is here to stay, and there are many roles for people to play at all levels of community involvement. It's not democratic yet in most cases. (John McMurria recently pointed out that the top 100 YouTube videos show less racial diversity than network TV, for example.) But we're getting somewhere.
According to Jeff Howe, the teenagers who go to punk shows don't really care about power users, or even the Internet, smart phones or computers. What they care about is expressing themselves and sharing their work, thoughts and feelings with other people. "They look at this technology like I used to look at a pencil when I was their age," said Howe.
Your Turn: Crowdsourcing an Idea for CrowdsourcingWhat does this have to do with green? Plenty, not the least of which because this is being composed on a computer, which is hooked up to the Internet. But more importantly, if crowdsourcing has so much potential, how do we better engage the green community to work together? There must he hundreds, or thousands, perhaps millions of ways we can empower each other to go further. "We're witnessing a profound shift in our culture, which can be disruptive," Howe said. We want that to be disruptive to polluters, to degradation, and not just to humor or technology or clothing.
So I'm going to crowdsource an idea for crowdsourcing: what would you like The Daily Green to help you do? You don't have to write a term paper; just tell us what you'd like to know and how you or your friends might be able to pitch in and help us find it out.
For a little inspiration, check out this Jeff Howe promo:
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