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The opportunity to tap the power of the crowd has spawned a whole regime of companies that promise to break down barriers and unlock the potential of the masses. But beneath this recent trend lie major fundamental flaws.
Don't get me wrong. This is not another whining diatribe against the perils of crowdsourcing. But without new business models and core principles that leverage these forces in a way that empowers its participants, the opportunity is likely to implode. Those involved need to innovate and start harnessing the crowd in more mutually beneficial (and thus sustainable) ways.
Crowdsourcing is driven by powerful online communities and an increased willingness from companies to engage talent from beyond the confines of their own offices. For creative talent in remote regions of the world, the prospect of a flat world full of opportunities is invigorating. Simply by joining an online community, it is easy to be found and engaged in projects. For the large companies that to date employed vast departments of highly paid, talented experts, the option to reduce overhead and still engage top talent wherever it may be can improve output and the bottom line.
So what's the problem?
The forces that enable crowdsourcing are being used to get thousands of people to do work for free, with a chance of getting paid only if their work is selected for use. This is fine for hobbyists or friendly competitions offering a token prize. But in a business context, it doesn't pay for either party.
In our research at Behance, an online platform for creative professionals, we've found that many creative professionals avoid these types of contests because they're too busy with commissioned work. When they do engage, they feel unfulfilled (if not exploited) afterwards—and they seldom participate again. Likewise, companies have also reported mixed sentiments. Inundated with options—mostly unprofessional in quality —they were ultimately left unsure of the worth of the exercise.
The crowd should be used in more controlled and informed ways. I firmly believe that the forces powering this phenomenon will revolutionize many industries, and I see a day when creative agencies and Fortune 500 marketing departments extend their entire creative production and idea generation to the crowd. But they need to do so in a way that empowers the participants and yields a satisfactory outcome for all.
The mechanics are already on the horizon. The talent market is becoming more of a meritocracy through the power of community curation and transparent feedback exchange. Through communities that ultimately sort quality through human recommendations—such as Digg.com, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn—the best stuff (people, content, etc.) rises to the top. Beyond the standard measure of votes and views, quality can now be measured by taking into account what specific groups of people think of specific content. For example, when evaluating a photography project, the opinion of experienced photographers should matter more than that of a typical visitor. It's easier than ever to find precisely what you're looking for.
One promising model to follow comes from the architecture industry. For large buildings, anywhere from 3 to 12 architects are selected to propose a rough set of plans for the building based on the quality of their previous work. Each one is compensated with a submission payment that helps to cover their costs, with the full fee for the project going to the architect ultimately selected. Why not do the same when engaging other types of creative experts? The crowd can be used to distinguish quality talent, and then a filtered "mini crowd" can be paid to contribute more specific ideas. This sounds laborious, but it needn't be. With the smart use of online applications for managing content and projects, it would be easy and seamless to identify and assemble and compensate a mini crowd.
New business models need to be built that strive for sustainability rather than short-term greed. Crowdsourcing should spawn long-term relationships between clients and creatives rather than be a one-off experiment that leaves a bad taste. And some guiding principles should be put in place. For starters, there should be a clear distinction between fun brand-engagement competitions and overt spec-work contests that are simply seeking to use free labor. There should be more disclosure about the odds of winning and details regarding ownership of work.
Creative agencies and recruiters should be the innovators in this area rather than the bandits. The value of a highly vetted, dedicated pool of talent will only increase as its members are compensated and become more educated about a client. Creative output for that client will improve while its overhead costs will be cut dramatically.
Most importantly, the freelancers, designers, and other plugged-in workers across industries should show themselves some respect. Talented people should showcase their strengths in online communities but only embrace crowdsourcing programs when the odds (and returns) are fair. Those with talent should only engage in systems (and with clients) that provide the opportunity to improve skills and offer constructive criticism. Like the more traditional employment experiences, crowdsourcing should help build relationships and career opportunities.
It is time that we stop whining about the bad implementations of crowdsourcing and start innovating better ones.