Book Review: Crowdsourcing

In 1997 Eric S. Raymond presented his ground breaking essay The Catherdral and Bazaar, forever changing the way we thought about software. In his essay Raymond explained why it was possible for a mess of unaffiliated hackers, hobbyists, and programmers in their off hours could build the robust, powerful, world class operating system that is Linux. His explanation gave us a vision of an entirely new way of getting work done, one that was as effective as it was counter intuitive. Now in his book Crowdsourcing Jeff Howe has shown us where this vision is coming true, revolutionizing the diverse fields of design, software, science, art, finance, and more.

Howe, first coined the termed “Crowdsourcing” in a 2006 Wired article looking at how companies were using the Internet to recruit individuals to  use “their spare cycles[time] to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.” Now in his book, Howe has expanded on this idea, showing how it might be more than a neat trick to cut costs, and actually represent the fulfillment of Raymond’s vision.

For those who aren’t familar with Raymond or crowdsourcing, I’d highly suggest following the two links above. Raymond’s online book is one of the most important things I think I’ve ever read, and the Wired article is a good introduction to the very nebulous idea of crowd sourcing. But for those too lazy, here’s the short version.

In the Catherdral and the Bazaar Raymond contrasts two forms of software development. The first is the catherdral mode, where a small elite team of developers cloisters themselves away and works with religous devotion on a piece of software, finally revealing it to the world in it’s completed glory. The second is the bazaar strategy, where anyone and everyone add, revises, and takes away from the code, working out in the open much like a tent market, with a constant and choatic flow of ideas driving development decisions. Counterintuitively, this second model is incredibly productive, as demonstrated by the thriving world of open source software. At the heart of Raymond’s explanation of the power of open source is this iconic phrase: “Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” That is, if enough people look at a problem, one of them will have a solution.

For Howe, Raymond’s ideas are just a small galaxy in of the whole universe of crowdsourcing. He shows how the same logic behind the open-source software model is driving revolutions in the area of stock photography, t-shirt design and sales, coporate R&D and more, giving compelling stories of crowdsourcing in action. Take for example, the T-Shirt company Threadless. Anyone can submit a T-shirt design to Threadless. Designs are voted on by the user community, and the winners receive a small monetary prize. Threadless then sells the winning designs in it’s store, almost always selling out. Or in the world of science, Innocentive, where corporate R&D departments can post problems them for anyone else to coming along and solve them. Shockingly, Innocentive boasts a 30% solve rate.

Howe doesn’t just talk about the who’s of crowdsourcing, he also gets into the mechanics, expaining what makes a good crowdsourcing community, and why crowdsourcing works anyways. It’s a fascinating look at a what promises to be a revolutionary trend in the modern world, changing how we all live and work.

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