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Q&A: Jeff Howe on 'crowdsourcing'

Howe's new book examines the power that large groups of people have when they collectively use their creativity and talent toward accomplishing a central goal.

In 2006, Wired magazine reporter Jeff Howe published a story about a phenomenon he'd been following in which the power of large numbers of people was being harnessed to make things happen that hadn't been possible before outside the auspices of corporations or other big institutions.

He called the phenomenon "crowdsourcing," and the term quickly caught on, joining others, like "tipping point," "wisdom of the crowds," "the long tail" as household phrases for the ways that things were changing all around us, often thanks to the democratizing reach of the Internet and the commoditization of tools, like high-quality digital cameras, that had previously been out of reach of most.

Jeff Howe's new book 'Crowdsourcing,' explores the power of people who collectively work on projects even when they're strangers to each other. Daniella Zalcman

One of the elements of Howe's defining crowdsourcing was a new understanding of how, when brought together to utilize collective intelligence, big, disparate groups of people working on a common task can be extraordinarily productive and deeply creative.

That, maybe, was the chief differentiator of Howe's discovery from James Surowiecki's Wisdom of the Crowds: that far-flung people are able to achieve great things outside the box.

He likes to talk, for example, about how a large number of people are now able to take great photographs, thanks to their high-end but relatively inexpensive cameras. This enabled a new kind of stock photography world to emerge--one that seems to be doing away with the traditional model in which only a select few photographers could have their work collected by stock photo agencies.

On Tuesday, Howe published his first book, appropriately titled, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. And as he prepares to storm the book world on a promotional tour, he is also giving interviews far and wide about the topic. On Tuesday alone, he writes on his blog, he will speak on 27 different radio programs around the country.

Howe's book publishes on Aug. 26 and is based on a 2006 article he wrote for 'Wired' magazine. Random House

Last week, Howe and I spoke about where this crowdsourcing phenomenon fits into our world. I had hoped to ask him to spell out the differences between his book and that of Surowiecki, but before I could, he had to leave to be with his family at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q: Is there a bit of a tragedy-of-the-commons element to crowdsourcing, to content on YouTube and things like that, where the 80-20 rule--that 80 percent of content is low-quality--governs?
Howe: There's an antidote to the 80-20 rule, and it's that the crowd filters itself. I just put up a blog post about Dell IdeaStorm, which is just a modern-day suggestion box.

Dell receives about 9,000 ideas, and some 500,000 people vote on them. And what those votes do is drive the best ideas up to the top. A lot of those ideas suck, but you don't have to read them, and Dell doesn't have to take action on them.

The essence of crowdsourcing is to take an overwhelming task, and by breaking it up into little chunks and distributing it to a large number of people, it becomes feasible. The good ideas rise like cream to the surface.

You write in the book about the success of the low-budget Web TV show, The Burg. Does that success create more opportunity for people working outside the mainstream system?
Howe: Absolutely. We're seeing the emergence of a different kind of complex ecosystem where some shows have the very highest production values but other shows look better with lower production values, and so it just an aesthetic, and the fact that aesthetic exists means that people without a big budget can exploit that.

So there is more opportunity?
Howe: There's enormous opportunity for amateur filmmakers with talent. The bar is no longer, "Do I have access to 16-millimeter film or enough money to get it developed?"

It's really exemplified by MDotStrange, who literally created a feature-length movie that got screened at Sundance in his little studio apartment in San Jose, using software that he'd presumably pirated and with a budget of zero dollars. It was simply labor, and that means that the game is open to anyone.

If you have the talent, you can make it. This is one of the central themes of crowdsourcing: There's a meritocracy, where people count no matter whether they have the connections or the budget or expensive equipment. And it's everything from astronomy to science to graphic design to photography to writing.

Since this meritocracy is opening up doors to everyone, how can endangered businesses like journalism save themselves?
Howe: By thinking creatively and streamlining. Journalism faces a lot of challenges. The advance of the crowd is only one of those. But smart news organizations are realizing that having their readers engaged in the media production process--in a richer, more sophisticated way--is its own end. It sells papers, it sells Web sites, it brings readers in.

You talked about Gannett being one of those news organizations, right?
Howe: I think Gannett has done smart stuff. It's the largest newspaper publisher in America, and it has made some smart community-oriented moves. But Gannett just laid off 1,000 people, so the fact that it's engaged its readers doesn't make it immune from market forces.

One example you talk about where a business is getting it right is the Netflix Prize, where Netflix offered $1 million to the first person who could improve his or her recommendation engine by 10 percent. What makes that your favorite problem-solving network application?
Howe: Because it got such a robust response very quickly, and it showed what brilliance was out there in the crowd. It's got all the elements of crowdsourcing. I was only theorizing about this two years ago, so to see practice mimic theory in this case was gratifying. And it was great to the see that the contestants were collaborating with each other, despite the fact that they were helping competition.

How will crowdsourcing change in the next few years?
Howe: We're seeing Crowdsourcing 2.0 emerge, a more intelligent form of crowdsourcing. Dell is using it intelligently. But I see a lot of the early adopters getting out of it.

Suddenly, every corporation wants the crowd to create their own ads, and that's often a disaster. Everyone wants to throw out a shingle and create a social-networking site.

We saw like Wal-Mart try to do this, and it created fake entries about kids who were buying Wal-Mart products. Any of us who track stuff like this thinks, "do you have no one smart in your entire organization? You're the largest employer in the world."

And the fact is they probably don't. So those companies will get out, or they'll get smart. As crowdsourcing continues to penetrate the mainstream, more companies will use it, but only the smart companies will succeed at it.

You wrote that diversity of experience trumps expertise. Why is that?
Howe: Well, these aren't my ideas. I'm merely re-presenting what are pretty standard collective-intelligence principles. A diverse group of problem solvers will almost always beat a homogeneous group of problem solvers. The reason is, very smart people tend to come from the same institutions, and they tend to try to solve problems in the same way. And sometimes that works, but often, it doesn't.

What diversity of experience brings is, even if someone may not be well-versed in that subject matter, she is able to apply her expertise from another subject matter entirely and say, "Well, you know, but wait, what if we try this?" And when you have a crowd, because you have the power of large numbers, there are times that taken as a whole, they excel because they are trying so many different things all at once.

What are the best industries for crowdsourcing?
Howe: It has totally transformed stock photography. So the question I pose in my book is, "Is stock photography the canary in the coal mine?" We might be beginning to see this with graphic design. I don't know yet because I haven't done the reporting on it, but it's at least something similar.

You have a lot of people who can do low-end design. You know they can create a logo. They can lay out a Web page, even though they're not professionals. They're adequate enough that they can make a supplementary income doing it or do it for fun, which is why photography works: because a lot of people love to take pictures.

Crowdsourcing is also having a big impact in corporate science, through companies such as InnoCentive and YourEncore and, you know, my suspicion is that it will continue to migrate into other fields, especially creative services.