Thursday, May 25, 2006

Crowdsourcing, Open Source, and Web 2.0

In The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe looks at outsourcing in comparison to web 2.0 and other collaborative online communities:

"Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D." (Wired)

People are increasingly looking to online communities to accomplish tasks more efficiently, more quickly, with higher quality and lower in cost than more traditional solutions. Howe has a number of examples of this phenomenon. First, the high priced stock photography market is being cannibalized by companies like iStockphoto that collect images shot by amateur contributors that can be sold at a much lower price. Second, media channels like VH1 and Bravo are looking to the web for funny and outrageous viral videos already becoming popular with their audience and putting them on television. Third, and most interesting to me, companies are using the internet to facilitate innovations and R&D for complex problems, like how to put fluoride into toothpaste tubes without getting the fluoride in the air.

This is not a new phenomenon. Open source projects have been doing this for years. Within the open source community, people work together online to create very complex products, everything from the Linux kernel to open source databases to open source web browsers. Creating complex products requires quite a bit of innovation, and communities have a unique opportunity to focus on innovations that are created by users or that build on the ideas of other people as discussed in Democratizing Innovation by Eric von Hippel. Firefox extensions and themes are a great example of user innovations shared within the community of Firefox developers and users. Like anything else, the quality of open source products can vary; however, many of these open source projects are of a very high quality partly due to what Eric Raymond called Linus's Law: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

Although "crowdsourcing" has existed in the open source community for years, the difference now is that the technology has evolved to allow anyone to participate in these communities. Fifteen years ago, you almost needed a computer science degree just to use open source products, not to mention actually contributing to them. With the web 2.0 technology of today, even those with minimal computer skills can join and become active participants in online communities to contribute thoughts and ideas via blogs, photography via Flickr and iStockphoto, and maybe even solve a complex R&D problem for a major company. "Crowdsourcing", while not a new idea, is now becoming a mainstream phenomenon.

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