Crowdsourcing Part 2: The Economic Utility of Work

(For the next few posts I’ll be giving my thoughts on the phenomena of crowdsourcing, based on my reading of Jeff Howe’s book Crowdsourcing. Part I is just my very basic book review. This is Part II.)

As I posted a few days ago, I just finished Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing. You can read my review here, but for those who just want he short version, it’s a great book. And as with all great books, it’s stuck with me, giving me fodder to think about for the last few days. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how counter-intuitive the idea of crowd-sourcing seems to be those who haven’t encountered open-source software or other real world crowd-sourcing examples. The incredulity these people express is pretty well summed in the phrase “why do all those people do all that work for free.”

Even when people aren’t thinking it directly, I think this doubt feeds into our general understanding of the economics of crowd sourcing. I know that when my father first started looking at open source he was skeptical, pointing out that this development model couldn’t be sustainable if money didn’t start flowing in eventually. He compared it to the popularity of car-tinking just as the popularity of the automobile began to explode, a fad that eventually became less prevalent.

Basically the problem lies with our understanding of man as an economic actor. Now it’s not news that our understanding of man as a rational economic actor is flawed. There’s a whole cottage industry of authors who have been shooting holes in the “rational” part of that idea. But what I’m interested in is something different, our assumptions about the nature of utility.

Utility is a term in economics referring to the pleasure that a person get’s out of a certain action. It’s an abstract concept, certainly not measurable, but just meant to give us an objective talking point when thinking about decision making. The problem though is that there seems to be this broad cultural assumption that utility comes primarily from two sources: consumption and leisure.

However, when we really examine the way the world looks, these two sources are probably the worst places to find long term utility. Simple Dollar blogger Trent spends alot of time examining how so much of the happiness in his life is based on experiences that don’t involve spending money and counseling others to work to seperate the experience of happiness from consumption. Sure we all say money can’t buy us happiness, but much of the time, we tend to act is if it does.

Similarly, we worship the idea of leisure, until we get too much of it and decide we’re bored. We all complain about how overworked we are, and how we just wish we had some downtime, but once we get it, we’re restless and looking for something else. 43 Folder blogger Merlin Mann revamped his website last year, moving it from being focused on ” the kind of productivity that’s about applying your time to frequent, high-quality “releases” — not laying in a hammock while people in Bangalore update your website.”

What I’m getting at here, is that there is a not insignificant number of people in this world who find that the best source of utility is not consumption or leisure, but work that they are insterested in and passionate about. That work things not because they’re paid to, but get money so they can work on things they want.

The geek community especially is full of this. Ask any geek out there what “projects” they’re working on. They won’t start talking about their work, they’ll start talking about the new computer they’re building, or the dresser they’re making, or the blog they just started. And if they aren’t working on something, they’re looking for something to work on. Ultimately that’s even what this blog is about I’m trying to figure out how to deal with the information that I encounter in my life in a productive, and ultimately fulfilling way, and I’m sure the key to it is joyful work.

This is the space in which crowdsourcing thrives, in the economic utility of work. The place where happiness derives from a sense accomplishment, from curosity, from the approbation of peers, from sometimes even the pure joy of doing. And it’s interesting that this is the place where we’re told we should be seeking out our happiness anyways. After all how many times are we told, money isn’t everything, or that it can’t buy happiness. Crowdsourcing seems to have hit on how to take this drive for meaningful, interesting work, and make it an economic dynamo, capitalizing on this previously inacessible source of energy and power. I just like Jeff Howe I think we’re going to see our economic landscape shift violently in the coming years as crowd sourcing comes into it’s own.

(Now of course having the time, energy, and resources to invest in crowdsourcing activities requires money for the consumption of food, shelter, educaitonal materials, etc. But we’ll get to that in my next post when I look at crowd sourcing and IP)

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