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Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business Paperback – September 15, 2009
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"An informed and enthusiastic guide to the new collaborative creativity."
"A welcome and well-written corporate playbook for confusing times."
"An engaging mix of business, sociology, organizational theory, and technology writing and fits the mold of Malcolm Gladwell’s perennial bestseller, The Tipping Point."
“While small groups have often been the foundation of great performance—think SWAT teams and Skunk Works—Jeff Howe has made the compelling case for the power of far larger communities of interest. He shows in Crowdsourcing—with rich illustrations from Google and InnoCentive to Threadless and Wikipedia—that the right community with the right incentives can often invent, write, and run research and business initiatives more effectively and less expensively than traditional enterprise.”
—Michael Useem, professor of management and director of the Leadership Center at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide and The Leadership Moment
“Beyond the wisdom of crowds is the work of crowds, a powerful and transformative source of creativity and an economic engine that defies traditional rules. Jeff Howe’s guide to crowdsourcing—to use his perfect coinage—is insightful, fun, and indispensable to those who want to understand, or participate in, this amazing phenomenon.”
—Steven Levy, author of Hackers and The Perfect Thing
“Jeff Howe has captured a complex and vital change in the business landscape: in the next few years, your customers could become your collaborators, or your competitors. His ability to weave story and strategy together makes Crowdsourcing a readable and indispensable guide to this new world.”
—Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
JEFF HOWE is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he covers the entertainment industry among other subjects. Before coming to Wired he was a senior editor at Inside.com and a writer at the Village Voice. In his fifteen years as a journalist, he has traveled around the world working on stories ranging from the impending water crisis in Central Asia to the implications of gene patenting. He has also written for U.S. News & World Report, Time magazine, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, and numerous other publications. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Howe's enthusiasm is very nearly unequivocal. He predicts that today's tech-savvy youth will "help accelerate the obsolescence of such standard corporate fixtures as the management hierarchy and nine-to-five workday," concepts he deems to be "artifacts of an earlier age when information was scarce and all decisions...trickled down from on high." And Howe's praise of the community as exemplified in crowdsourcing is so complete that it borders on subservience: "Yes, communities need a decider," he concedes in his concluding chapter, but while "...you can try to guide the community...ultimately you'll wind up following them."
The author's unabashedly optimistic chronicle of the ascendancy of crowdsourcing (a label he created) brings to mind a phrase once made famous by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan: "irrational exuberance." Jeff Howe's full-fledged advocacy for the crowd's potential is equally as overreaching as Jaron Lanier's dire warnings on the same topic. In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier writes ominously, "We [have]...entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will only escape it when we kill the hive."
Both authors fail to account for some basic rules of human nature. Lanier laments that "when [digital developers] design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view." To which Howe would undoubtedly respond, Damn right. In fact, he explicitly states that "a central principle animating crowdsourcing is that the groups contain more knowledge than individuals."
Howe and Lanier are each right in their own ways. Crowdsourcing does indeed represent an entirely new model of work, one that transcends business and could upend a sizable chunk of existing corporate practices. Many of Lanier's fears, while understandable, are not feasible now or in virtually any other conceivable time horizon. And yet he is right that crowdsourcing will never replace the value of specialization. While Howe correctly lauds the democratization of decision-making -- for example, aspiring filmmakers are no longer beholden to studio executives' every whim -- his populist celebration of online egalitarianism is not bounded by realistically described limitations. "The crowd possesses a wide array of talents," Howe writes, "and some have the kind of scientific talent and expertise that used to exist only in rarefied academic environments."
The key word here is "some." Howe notes Sturgeon's Law ("90 percent of everything is crap") and briefly admits that this may present an inaccurate portrayal of reality: "a number of the people I talked to for this book thought that was a lowball estimate." Even for the ten or fewer percent that actually do provide reasonably intelligent contributions to the marketplace of ideas, much will be repetitive or non-cumulative. A thousand people with a hobbyist's interest in chemistry may all eagerly contribute to a forum on noble gases, but it hardly follows that they will achieve any real breakthrough that eludes far more studied experts in the field.
Ultimately, it is not so much the anecdotes that undercut Howe's thesis, nor is it his own repetition (which, in one particularly egregious case, consisted of several sentences copied wholesale from an earlier section of the book). Instead, it is his idealism that brings to mind countless earlier predictions of technology's ability to transform human nature, prophesies that have more often than not been proved demonstrably untrue. It remains to be seen what will become of crowdsourcing; will it go the way of the flying cars that American prognosticators naively envisioned over half a century ago? This seems unlikely, and yet so does the author's vision of a crowdsourcing revolution in business. The truth will likely lie somewhere in the middle, lodged comfortably between Jeff Howe's crowd-fueled utopia and Jaron Lanier's "hive mind" hell.
It is organized from a historical perspective to the present with a look to the future, and discusses vivid examples in each section.