Crowdsourcing: an ethics dilemma?

April 23, 2011 By Aminda

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society raised the challenging question as to whether corporate social media is ethical. Is there a “Tom Sawyer syndrome” at work in which people are suckered into doing work thinking that it’s something to be enjoyed, where they are persuaded to complete simple tasks for no pay at all, instead offering recognition within the volunteer community or points in the guise of a game.

“Fees paid for crowdsourced tasks are usually so meager that they could not possibly earn participants a living wage,” Mr. Zittrain argued. Rather they are going to be more appealing to groups such as poor graduate students seeking spending money.

At least one USA Today writer supports him. “Penny-pinching companies are hiring specialists to plumb the vast resources of the Web in search of cheap expert help,” he writes. Crowdsourcing “is gaining momentum among businesses, non-profits and individuals who are getting work done at a fraction of the normal cost.”

As reported by the Chronical of Higher Education, the SXSW Conference where Zittrain presented this theory, featured panelists with some compelling counter-arguments as well, including Lukas Biewald, head of CrowdFlower, which is “not at all like a sweatshop”. All of the activities are voluntary, he pointed out, and the workers can log off anytime. He said it was hard to imagine the repressive tactics used in physical sweatshops going virtual.

It is also is a huge opportunity for workers, says a Boston Globe writer. He cites, txteagle, which distributes image, audio and text-based tasks to mobile cell-phone users across the globe, and has become one of Kenya’s largest employers, employing a 10,000-strong workforce is a network of freelancers.

What do you think? Is Zittrain’s opinion exaggerated or is there some validity to it?

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Reader Comments

As with any business model, there are going to be those "unscrupulous" types who try to gain the advantages while unfairly exploiting the participants. I myself have encountered situations where I have been "under paid" or not paid at all for participation in some projects. This does not discourage me, because of my own expectations and motivations for participating in such efforts- but it does demand more due-diligence on my part when evaluating a project for participation.
A couple of factors that need to be borne in mind:

1. The organization seeking crowd-sourced input is motivated by cost controls, at least in part. They are seeking solutions at the most cost-effective level. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily an unreasonable objective.

2. Contributors generally do not have a complete picture of the goals and the contributions provided by others, and therefore are at a disadvantage regarding an understanding of the actual value of their contributions. We all have different skill levels, different knowledge bases on which we draw. What is trivial effort to me, may require several hours of effort from someone else, while the reverse may be true in the next situation.

The bottom line is, value is determined by the purchaser, not the seller. If the purchaser feels that your 100's of hours of effort do nothing to further the project, then your 100's of hours of effort have no value to the purchaser. On the other hand, it may just be that ten minutes of contemplation on your part has uncovered a trivial solution that launches a project into the stratosphere- a result worth considerably more to the originator than 100's of hours of effort that is being duplicated ad infinitum by every would-be contributor from New York to Delhi...
Posted by Charles Warner on April 26, 2011

I agree that crowdsourcing is becoming a sort of exploitation of workers, especially from poor countries. The low wages advertised or required by some employers on freelance websites, as an example, can be considered as modern days slavery. The worst part of it is that many employers re-sell freelancers' work for a lot of money whereas it did cost them pennies.
Posted by Rachid Lakhal on April 26, 2011

I think the analysis of this issue is more complex. Companies need input for increased innovation while at the same time reducing their risk. Crowdsourcing is a less risky way to increase access to innovative ideas and to spur innovation. At the same time that risk is decreased within large companies, it may be increased for problem solvers. That is, they risk providing time and energy to solving problems that may not result in increased revenue.

That having been said, however, there are benefits associated with crowdsourcing and other innovation processes that go beyond financial remuneration. For graduate students, for instance, there is the opportunity gain experience working on innovative solutions. For others, the opportunity to participate in a problem solving task is stimulating and adventurous. On one of the many challenges I have facilitated in a group challenge, a team member indicated he loves open innovation processes because they provide him with access to challenging problems that he does not normally encounter as a consultant. "This way," he said, "I am able to work on something exciting that I don't normally see."

As I reminiss about thoughts other problem solvers have shared with me, I wonder if problems solvers who are especially talented might emerge as favorites who are offered opportunities for financial reward. But, what about the rest of the solvers, are they chasing a dream that may not materialize?

I would hope that this is yet one more problem to be solved. Since it is new and yet to become institutionalized, crowdsourcing has yet to establish itself as a regular practice. As it becomes a standardized practice, access to good problem solvers may also become more difficult resulting in more financial benefit to those who participate. It is difficult to tell where the future of these new processes will find themselves. Still, it is good to think about these issues and be aware of them so that a balanced approach may emerge.
Posted by Lisa Singh on April 26, 2011

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