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The power of the crowd, revisited

Almost three years after Jeff Howe coined the term in "The Rise of Crowdsourcing," the term yields more than 1 million results in a Google search.

Almost three years after Jeff Howe coined the term in his seminal article "The Rise of Crowdsourcing," and, ironically, in the very week 1,300 handpicked scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, and other thinkers, movers, and shakers assembled at the TED conference in Long Beach, the term "crowdsourcing" yielded more than 1 million search results on Google.

That's quite an accomplishment. Crowdsourcing is no longer an exclusive noun for a few in the know, it has become a verb for the crowd. Mom-and pop shops, SME's, and large corporations, receptionists, interns, middle managers, and CEOs – everyone's crowdsourcing these days and calling it so (even if they just ask a few friends to particpate in a mini-survey...).

Here's a little piece of nostalgia, THE crowdsourcing primer starring Jeff Howe:

Interestingly, the power of the crowd has not translated yet into the one realm whose decisions have arguably the biggest power to impact the crowd: politics. Since Obama's masterful use of social media helped restore trust in the American ideal of democracy, and his emphatic election fomented expectations of all-inclusive "power-to-the-people" digital governance, most of the attempts to establish an effective crowdsourced model of policy-making have fallen flat, at least so far. While the new US president has issued several executive orders introducing a new level of transparency to governance (on this topic, for a divergent opinion, it is worth reading Noah Feldman's "In Defense of Secrecy" essay in the NY Times Magazine), the mechanisms of collaborative political decision-making have yet to find a proper forum on the social web.

Sure, there are dozens of open forums that aggregate input and funnel it to the decision-makers – from Public Agenda to the rather light-hearted advertising riff "Dear Mr. President" (Pepsi). And on, there were Obama's invitation during the transition to submit input for his political agenda ("share your vision") as well as Tom Daschle's video responses to people's suggestions on healthcare ("citizen briefing book"). Perhaps the most ambitious project so far, however, was MySpace and's "Ideas for America" initiative. The site yielded 7,875 ideas by way of crowdsourcing and then distilled them down (through 675,943 votes) to ten ideas presented to the administration. Yet even though a blog is tracking the progress, it is somewhat unclear if and when the top ten ideas are actually becoming action items incorporated into national policy.

What's lacking is transparency when it matters. If all the crowdsourced ideas remain in a sand box without visible, actionable outcome, the enthusiasm to engage in politics (that was so salient during the presidential campaign) will slowly fade. Yet the missing link between input and outcome is not an easy task given the many legal and bureaucratic restrictions the administration is facing. For the time being, it is the experts who govern. The crowd will have to wait before its ideas will make a real difference in setting the national agenda.