Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to Make Crowdsourcing Sustainable and Productive

In just four years, crowdsourcing has moved from a newly-coined term to an increasingly common practice. Now some Web heavyweights, from to Wikipedia, approach a variety of tasks by enlisting the wisdom -- and work -- of the crowd.

Scott Belsky, founder of a creative services company called Behance, and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, director of design and user experience for, believe it's time to outline some principles and dispel some misconceptions for the crowdsourcing era. At South by Southwest Interactive they outlined what can make a crowdsourced project work and what can make it fall apart.

Their panel was one of several panels that considered the implications of crowdsourcing for everything from online media to Netflix to programming.

Belsky and Kalmikoff don't work in news, but their advice is relevant for an online news operation considering this approach.

The wisdom of the crowd, Belsky and Kalmikoff noted, is often code for "free labor." How often have organizations turned to crowdsourcing simply because they didn't have the resources to do something themselves?

Instead, a successful crowdsourced project must foster a strong sense of community. A business, Belsky and Kalmikoff noted, doesn't have a community; it is part of one. Wikipedia,, Fark -- they all are communities of people built around a common purpose, doing more together than they could do alone.

Consider how sustainable your crowd is. The nature of crowdsourced initiatives, Belsky said, is that they usually look more like sprints than marathons.

So if people must participate in order to be part of your crowd, they'll probably burn out -- and so will your project or site. Instead, people should be able to identify with your crowd even if they don't participate all the time.

In other words, make sure there's a role for the lurkers.

Don't create a system or ask people to do something that will cause misgivings later. "No business should want their users to have this recollection of 'It seemed like a good idea at the time,' " Belsky said. (They called this the 'discount sushi' dilemma.)

Your system, whatever it is, must be structured so that it encourages collaboration. Kalmikoff contrasted two settings, a locker room and a strip club, to describe an environment that encourages collaboration.

In a locker room before a game, the teammates encourage each other, knowing that each one's success depends on the others. The dancers at a strip club, on the other hand, don't have that shared goal. In fact, their environment is set up to encourage competition instead.

Make sure you have a mechanism to discourage careless engagement. In your effort to encourage participation, you must also offer incentives to hold back. You don't want people flooding the system with poorly considered ideas and work.

"If what you're doing in no way harms or benefits your reputation, that is an overall risk for crowds in general, and sustainability in general," Kalmikoff said.

Don't waste people's brainpower. This seems self-evident, but Belsky and Kalmikoff said often people exert a lot of energy contributing to projects that never go anywhere. People are always weighing the value of their time against the potential reward of working with the crowd; if they don't see any result, they won't contribute.

They suggested three questions to consider before launching a crowdsourced project:

Can it foster community? Projects foster community if there's an incentive for conversation and learning, if there's incentive to engage beyond a specific transaction, and if there's a culture of collaboration.

Does it tap into the collective wisdom? A crowdsourced project should gather opinions, facts or insights that, taken together, are greater than the sum of their parts.

Does it nurture participants? Projects that nurture participants do these things:

* Benefit people's reputation (either within or outside the project)
* Build relationships
* Don't waste resources or time
* Make the terms of participation clear
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