The Canary in the Coal Mine

An Interview with Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing
By Vern Burkhardt
The crowd is talented, creative and stunningly productive. Crowdsourcing has the potential to harness the knowledge and talents of the crowd to solve our greatest problems.

The Internet enables us to perform our most meaningful, rewarding work away from the workplace.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You were the first to use the term "crowdsourcing," in an article with that name in the June 2006 edition of Wired Magazine. How did you come to realize this was a pivotal new phenomenon that would have dramatic and far-reaching consequences?

Jeff HoweJeff Howe: My comprehension of the phenomenon occurred before the coining of the term. In 2005 I was working on an article about MySpace. I spent three or four months that summer working on the MySpace article. At the time people weren’t really discussing it as a social network. The story I was working on was how musicians were using MySpace to circumvent major labels, to create their own fan network, sell merchandise, book tours and create a fan base without the necessity of traditional promotion. Of course that is its own form of crowdsourcing.

I spent a lot of time with musicians. I went on band’s tours to various concert stops. The work tours are, as I described in Crowdsourcing, a moveable punk rock feast, because it’s not just the bands—there are about 50 that play on six different stages. It tends to draw a very creative and eclectic mix of teens. What I noticed was the prominence of technology.

Everyone who was in attendance had their own MySpace space. In addition to their music they were doing a lot of web design and illustration, tattoo art, publishing books of poetry and a lot of photography and video. The musicians were capable of their own videography and web design. And the kids who were doing poetry were also playing music. It seemed to me they personified what I later came to think of as "promiscuous creativity" or "platform agnostic creativity." It made me think more deeply about user-generated content than I had before.

I published the story a couple of months later and it didn’t have any of this thinking in it. It was a music industry piece but these ideas were lodged in my head.

When the Wired marketing people asked me to speak about the MySpace article to some executives at the last minute—actually it was the night before—I changed the agenda entirely and stayed up late really obsessed with these ideas. Not of user-generated content but of user-generated. I didn’t think it was about content.

What I knew in having observed the kids is that all of these dynamics that were driving the explosion of content had nothing to do with content per se, even though most of what I observed was the kids making content. It wasn’t that the kids were saying "Oh, I want to make some content." They wanted to make stuff in areas that interested them. They wanted to be able to express themselves.

That led to my all-night exploration of the idea, of typing "user-generated" instead of "user-generated content" in the presentation. I identified specific examples of this in the speech the next day. I said you can think of user-generated content as being just the tip of the iceberg. I was saying if you think that’s the beginning of the end of this phenomenon, you’re deeply mistaken. This is much more powerful. It is a much larger groundswell, a much more significant tectonic shift.

CrowdsourcingI called my editor and said, "I think this is very promising, interesting and transformative, but I also think it is going to be a threat." While discussing that we played off the outsourcing name. He said, "It is like outsourcing but you’re outsourcing to the crowd," and I replied, "Well, you can call it crowdsourcing."

VB: And that’s how the name came to be?

Jeff Howe: And that’s how the name came into being.

VB: An exciting time for you two to have drawn these conclusions.

Jeff Howe: Yes. There really is a right place and a right time. In my 15 years of journalism the resulting article about crowdsourcing has received far more exposure than any other I have written, just in terms of links online or Google prominence.

I think when the article came out it struck a real chord. It went from three Google hits before the article went live, all by people who worked at Wired Magazine or were friends of someone working at Wired. Within a couple of weeks there were 300,000. And it’s not necessarily the best thing I’ve written!

VB: That’s an example of the reach of the Internet.

Jeff Howe: It sure is.

A lot of people were having the same thoughts I was, but no one had written about it. Actually, there was one BusinessWeek piece, which I didn’t read until after I published the article. It had come out a couple of months earlier. But that is literally the only piece I ever read and that includes publications in academia too.

There were not very many people in print who were making these connections and signaling that this was a much larger, broader phenomenon. But I think a lot of people were doing so during dinner conversations, over cocktails, in conference rooms, and at the water cooler.

I began to question why would this be limited to content? Wikipedia is not exactly content. Why wouldn’t this be applicable to all forms of information production?

VB: You say crowdsourcing is inevitable. What are some of the things businesses and individuals should do to prepare for, and embrace, this inevitability?

Jeff Howe: A big thing if you’re a company is: be prepared to have a different relationship with your customer. And I want to be specific. I don’t think every or even most companies are going to be swept away by the crowd.

Generally what we see is a phenomenon limited to information production. Which admittedly is a very large sector of the economy. But even within that sector companies, which traffic in products that don’t inspire a lot of passion or complex thinking and feeling in their customer base, won’t necessarily profit from crowdsourcing. However, that still leaves us with a large fraction of the Gross Domestic Product pie that can benefit from crowdsourcing.

Those companies need to ready themselves for a more complex ecosystem. It’s no longer wise to think: here are my vendors, here’s me making my product and here are the customers. Companies may increasingly be competing with their vendors, competing with their customers, collaborating with their vendors and collaborating with those customers all at the same time.

I’m certainly not saying anything original here, but I will add my voice to the chorus. Be ready to open up. Open up the decision-making process. Open up the production process. Be ready to hear other voices and relinquish some control.

The sound byte I say a lot is "be humble," because I think humility has been lacking in corporations and companies. There has been a prevalent idea of "no one knows my business better than I do," and you can understand why it would arise.

In a way, of course, it’s true. For example a team of ten behind a start-up company, all of whom have been working 70 hours a week for two years, may feel they have the right to tell other people what their business is about. But that attitude is counter to a lot of what we see in crowdsourcing, where you may know the nuts and bolts, but for the general theme, for a lot of the broad stroke ideas, the crowd might have a lot to contribute.

In order to hear them, much less make use of their contributions, you have to get humble.

VB: You use the term "the Billion" synonymously with crowdsourcing because this phenomenon is made possible by the Internet. Do you foresee major changes in crowdsourcing when "the Billion" becomes "the Three Billion" or even "the Four Billion"? Will the creativity and problem solving potential of crowdsourcing increase exponentially?

Jeff Howe: I have two different ideas so I want to tease them out.

I think crowdsourcing is increasing pretty rapidly. But I’m not sure how much increasing numbers of people getting online will contribute to the phenomenon. The simple reason is that the potential growth in crowdsourcing will be enabled by penetration of broadband and wireless non-broadband in developing economies. There’s still a little bit of growth to be had in the developed world but really not much.

If there’s a demographic factor active in crowdsourcing and I think it’s safe to say there is—although this is conjecture because no one has studied it—well, it is not entirely conjecture. There have been surveys of sites like iStockphoto and some of the big crowdsourcing companies and one can extrapolate from those surveys that this is a middle-class and even upper-middle class phenomenon.

It is people who have not only an Internet connection but also a lot of social media software, a fairly high degree of aptitude with the software, and a high degree of familiarity with conventions like forums and Internet communities.

If suddenly a computer comes to a village and is linked to the Internet, but the adults have never been online, their kids have never been online, and their peers have never been online, I’m not sure that within that generation—let’s call it 10 or 15 years—they’ll be a huge contribution to crowdsourcing.

That differs from country to country. I think India will begin contributing. There’s a lot of interest in India in crowdsourcing. I think the reasons are particular to India, but that country alone could lead to a big increase in crowdsourcing.

Even with a dramatic overall increase, as you suggested with the billion becoming two or three billion on the Internet, crowdsourcing growth will probably lag behind that growth in the number connected to the Internet by a considerable length of time.

There are first steps such as learning e-mail. If you’re getting online now in Thailand—but Thailand is a bad example. Thailand is an example where increasing broadband could lead to increased crowdsourcing activity. But certainly in sub-Saharan Africa, the first generation is going to be using connectivity to send e-mail from village to village, clan to clan, or to try to get better services from the central government. They will be dealing with some of the basic things that are endemic to underdeveloped economies.

VB: You have said crowdsourcing is "Wikipedia with everything." Would you explain?

Jeff Howe: There’s not much to explain except that it’s a cocktail party definition to allow people to wrap their heads around it really fast.

I think of crowdsourcing’s "big bang." I think of Larry Sanger, who was involved in a fledgling project to reinvent the encyclopedia. He wanted entrepreneur Jimmy Wales to invest in a cultural news digest. Jimmy Wales had read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar and instead suggested using a bazaar business model or production model to create an encyclopedia. It was unsuccessful until they brought in the innovation of the Wiki and that exploded everything.

So I think of it in some ways as an early example of crowdsourcing although the really good example of crowdsourcing is open source. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between open source and crowdsourcing.

VB: In 1968 J.C.R. Licklider, an employee in the US Department of Defense, accurately predicted that the Internet would foster communities composed of persons with common interests and goals. If we look 40 years into the future, what will be some of the interesting impacts that crowdsourcing will have on the economy and our culture?

Jeff Howe: Government always lags behind the private sector. I think crowdsourcing has immense potential in areas that are just starting to engage—and government is one. Philanthropy and non-profits are others.

As an example, government produces legislation. It is an information product and it inspires an enormous amount of passion—maybe not in everyone, but in a select group of people such as stakeholders.

So the idea of a crowdsourced legislative process, which is something Holland has been experimenting with, holds enormous potential. There’s no reason to draft legislation and hold a public comment and hearing process, which is generally what agencies do now, if you could be drafting this legislation by Wiki. You could open it up to people within certain industries. If it is education legislation you could have representatives accessing it from the teacher’s unions, children’s advocacy groups, parents and other interested parties.

A lot of crowdsourcing is the art of creating the right crowd. It’s not all a completely open call, it’s an open call within certain frameworks. You’re trying to create a very specific community with crowdsourcing. iStockphoto, for example, is creating a community for people who are creatively inclined and, more specifically, for photographers.

I might be a little too rosy about crowdsourcing’s prospects in government or perhaps too rosy about government’s ability to move faster than at a snail’s pace. I look at the United States and don’t understand why they wouldn’t use crowdsourcing. It makes so much sense for achieving good government.

VB: You say the miracle of self-organization makes crowdsourcing very efficient because of its ability to organically allocate intellectual resources. Would you talk about that phenomenon?

Jeff Howe: Crowdsourcing and a lot of selective intelligence applications or "wising" the crowds is somehow counter-intuitive. There is a magic bean element—people suddenly become aware of a growing stalk and ask, "that came from a bean?" It shocks people.

Crowdsourcing has a couple of those magic beans but one of them is the act of self-organization. A Wiki is a nice example because everyone knows it. It is tremendously effective with Wikipedia where no central authority has to go out and find the experts on, say, Tajikistan, which would be hard and would involve a lot of what an economist would call a "transaction cost."

Let’s say it costs 50 dollars per hour to hire someone to write an encyclopedia entry on Tajikistan and you’re going to pay two people to do that. And then you’re going to have them review each other’s work. You’re going to double that at ten hours each, so you can think of the cost as being about 500 dollars. The magic bean, when it came to Wikipedia, is there are actually 1,000 people out there with a deep, abiding interest and passion for knowledge about Tajikistan.

The numbers are likely incorrect as I am being hypothetical, but it serves to make the point. All you have to do is have an adequately large open call, "Hey, who will come and perform this task online?" And people will come of their own accord, assuming that those who have the passion, the interest and the knowledge also have broadband connections.

As we’re seeing with the breadth of crowdsource applications, those conditions are being met all the time all around us by a least a billion people. The results are phenomenal. It is that act of self-organization. People will organize according to their interest and then they will even organize to check each other’s work. So filters emerge.

You certainly get that with Wikipedia and you see it with iStockphoto,, YouTube, and Dell’s IdeaStorm, where some people are passionate about something but not enough to make them write an article. But they are passionate enough to correct things.

This is an aside but I think it is fascinating. I understand someone has written about it but I haven’t read it. What’s happened in the last couple of years with Wikipedia is that "experts" now monitor the pages.

If you read the page on Tajikistan it looks like it has been vetted by a couple of Central Asian Studies professors, and probably also by some English-speaking government officials in Tajikistan. Tajikistan is one of my case studies, so I actually know that page. But this is generally true across Wikipedia.

A lot of subjective stuff has been removed and a lot of what’s been added is references and citations. So the idea that Wikipedia is a kind of hurly-burly is no longer the case. The response to the open call has gotten large enough. I bet that Tajikistan page was first written five or six years ago by an amateur. I would almost be willing to guarantee it. But it has now been vetted by more experts than the Tajikistan page in Encyclopedia Britannica has.

No doubt there is not a single Central Asian Studies professor in the world that has not looked at the English-language Tajikistan page. I would be shocked to hear if there were any.

VB: And of course the experts would be keen to ensure accuracy, because so many people are referring to it.

Jeff Howe: Absolutely. And they care.

VB: MySpace Music recently reached an agreement with Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, and Warner Music to enable the crowd to play music without charge while they are using MySpace. And if they wish, they can link to iTunes or Amazon to purchase a copy for their iPod.

Apparently the fourth largest music distributor, EMI is negotiating an arrangement as well. We recognize that the old business model based on protecting copyright and generating revenue through radio and distribution of music was no longer working.

Is this business model sustainable—giving away music and generating revenue through advertising on MySpace’s website—selling paraphernalia and concert tickets?

Jeff Howe: Yes, I think it’s sustainable—it’s just sustainable at lower levels of income. In the September 2006 edition of Wired Magazine I wrote about Nettwerk Music Group, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based music management company. Terry McBride, CEO, promoted a lost leader model where you give the music away and you make it back on touring and merchandise. His maverick approach is to take care of the fans and the bands, and the business will take care of itself.

I think my prediction in that article has been vindicated and we see an emerging middle class of musicians who can make a living at it, but they bust their butts. The major labels have slowly evolved to the loss-leader business model. Sale of music is becoming a smaller business.

What is often overlooked is that it was a small business to begin with. At its height global music revenues were in the order of 13-billion dollars. That’s 20-percent of what revenues from newspapers were at their height and only four times larger than the global revenue from orchids.

Music gets a disproportionate amount of attention, because we all love it, but in a lot of cultures music has never been a business.

VB: This was also the case in North America a century ago.

Jeff Howe: For a long time a lot more people listened to music than its share of the Gross Domestic Product would ever lead to you believe. Music wasn’t a big part of the American economy in 1880. So if you were an economist looking at the GDP you would say. "Well, Americans almost never listen to music."

Well, that wasn’t the case. There were player pianos and pretty much every ten-year-old in a middle class home could bang out some Chopin or a music hall tune or two. I think music is returning to that.

The future doesn’t look half as surprising if you’ve studied history well. Things go in cycles and I don’t think anything that is happening in the music industry is the end of the music world or the end of culture. It sucks for a lot of musicians who thought music looked like a more viable career than it does now, but in terms of the actual music production we’re in a really rich time.

I listen to a lot of mainstream music and there’s a lot of great stuff being made. It’s just that very few if any are going to get rich from it anymore.

VB: Returning to crowdsourcing, a number of newspapers have adapted to the crowdsourcing phenomenon by publishing on the Internet and including a two-way conversation with their audience. Do you foresee the end of the paper versions of newspapers—even the Wall Street Journal and the London Times or, dare I say, the paper version of Wired Magazine?

Jeff Howe: Yes, a paper copy of a newspaper is a dinosaur. I think we all know that. It doesn’t mean print will cease to exist this year or in five years or even 15 years. We don’t know that paper copies of newspapers will cease because of crowdsourcing but because 20-year-olds are not reading them.

You’d have to throw a lot of stones before you hit a twenty-year-old who reads a newspaper. It is a dying medium. It’s ecologically unsound, it’s inefficient, it’s slow, and it’s increasingly archaic as measured against journalistic practice.

For journalists, the print edition of anything is slowly becoming a bit of an afterthought. Most of us are aiming to break stories online, or at least we’re refreshing stories online. The printed edition is where a company makes its revenue, but it is no longer the optimum form for disseminating ideas and stories.

The big thing I tried to convey in the book is that crowdsourcing could breathe new life into investigative journalism. The connection with an audience and leveraging them as thousands of investigative reporters. That’s strictly an Internet phenomenon.

VB: You describe Current as "reality TV for smart people." You also say American Idol is the largest focus group in history for Sony BMG. Will the reality TV phenomenon be a passing fad or does it have legs because it uses the power of crowdsourcing?

Jeff Howe: It has legs. I don’t think the power of crowdsourcing per se has anything to do with it. I think it has legs because it fascinates people.

There’s a really influential essay written in 1936—Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." He was writing it at the time of the rise of radio, recorded music, recorded speeches, and mass production of photography and images. Television wasn’t far off, and it was known that TV would be following radio. He anticipated that we might see it manifested initially as a one to many medium, but that its natural state would be many-to-many.

Walter Benjamin’s thoughts looked awfully theoretical for a long time. But we’re beginning to see Benjamin being proven correct. There’s a fascination in seeing ourselves or people who are like us on television. It’s a bit like "dirty little secret."

I don’t share this fascination. I like Madman. I hate reality TV. I don’t know what that says about me, except I don’t read about technology. I read history books. I am very much a part of the crowd in other ways. Just not reality TV.

VB: Jeff, the jacket design for Crowdsourcing is different for the version being sold in the United Kingdom. Would you talk about how you crowdsourced this cover and ended up with the "ants" design by Hans van Brooklyn? And why a different jacket design?

Jeff Howe: The reason the UK cover was crowdsourced and the US one wasn’t is that the UK thought of it and the US didn’t.

There has been a lot published about the cover-sourcing experiment. The publisher asked whether we should try to use the power of crowdsourcing described in the book and whether I thought it would work. My reply was, "I know it will work."

If you offer on the Internet 500 pounds or Euros to design a cover, you’re going to get some good covers. There were 400 entries.

A lot about crowdsourcing is the law of large numbers. A big part of it is nothing more complicated than that. When 400 people try their hand at something, two, three, or four percent of them are going to be pretty good.

We had a shortlist. The crowd voted on a shortlist of 20 covers and I would have been happy with ten of them. Ten of the 400 were great.

We’re doing another experiment with the US version—crowdsourcing book reviews. We’ve turned the book review process on its head. I received a letter from someone asking me for a free book. At first I had the typical response—no. Then I looked at my shelf and saw about fifty copies of Crowdsourcing. I thought why not, what more am I going to do with them all?

Most of my friends had bought the book as a show of support. So I’ve decided I’m going to give it to everyone who pledges to me that they will, in exchange, review it on their blog. They have to have a blog, some connection with their local paper or at least assure me they will try to publish their review somewhere. I suspect we’re going to send out 150 to 200 books.

I think this is really interesting. It’s not so much a crowdsourcing experiment as a long-tail experiment. As time passes I’m getting reviewed less because the book has been out for a while. So can this one tail drive a spike in sales or a surge? Let’s not say a spike. But if half of these 200 people review the book on their blogs, what does that do?

In some ways that is a more valuable publishing experiment, because it could have a great impact on publishing. (Vern’s Note: Chris Anderson coined the term "long tail" in the October 2004 edition of Wired Magazine. It refers to the business strategy of selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities for each sales transaction.)

VB: You have been interviewed many times and have been the topic of many complimentary articles in the media about Crowdsourcing. What has the crowd’s response to your book been so far?

Jeff Howe: It’s been positive. Generally it seems reviewers like my book but want to take the phenomenon to task. They think either that crowdsourcing is not as pervasive as my book would lead them to believe or that there are more limitations than I imply. Sometimes I thought their questions were pretty sound. A critical review goes down pretty smoothly if you agree with the criticisms.

I’ve had reviews in most of the major UK publications, not so much in the US. Although the US has done pretty well too. In the US it’s been covered in the Miami Herald and BusinessWeek, for example. In the UK—which also reaches US audiences—The Economist and Financial Times of London articles certainly helped.

I’m guessing they helped put the book into a respectable, but hardly stratospheric, sales level. It’s doing pretty well but it’s hardly a best seller. The question is whether sales will start to decline as time passes from the dates of the reviews in the major publications.

VB: In your blog entry on August 5th, you said the July 28th article in BusinessWeek titled, "Cheap Photo Sites Pit Amateurs vs. Pros," should be required reading for anyone following the crowdsourcing phenomenon closely. Why is it a must read?

Jeff Howe: It is my theory that graphic design is going to go where stock photography went. The reason that is significant is because crowdsourcing upset the financial applecart in stock photography. That is no longer up for debate. It completely transformed an entire industry from one that was dependent on professionals to one that is, if not entirely, largely dependent on the crowd.

Thirty- to 40-percent of stock images are now being created by the crowd. Probably more. Thirty- to 40-percent of the economic value of those photos goes to the crowd. In terms of the number of images, probably many more than that are being created by the crowd. If you go to Flickr it is even more than that. So the big question is, will that spread to other fields?

My conclusion after reading that BusinessWeek article is the crowdsourced graphic design companies are making a real go of it—they’re doing quite well. I suspect graphic design is a small industry, but that doesn’t matter. It’s significance is that crowdsourcing is migrating across the creative field.

Also graphic design is a lot more complex than low-end or middle-end photography. High-end photography is incredibly complex and requires years of training. But almost any level of graphic design requires a fair amount of training. Expertise with the software is required, as is visual literacy training in an art school and a lot of experience in making designs.

If the crowd can overtake the professionals in this area it implies, or we can extrapolate, that a lot of other creative fields are going to follow like domino pieces. That was the significance of the article.

VB: The trailer clip of you on your blog which is also on YouTube is a good summary of crowdsourcing. And you are clearly enthusiastic about the topic.

Jeff Howe: I tend to get emphatic about this stuff having written a whole book about it. You’d think I’d been bored by now but this is not the case.

VB: The trailer certainly didn’t suggest you were bored. Jeff, any plans for a sequel to Crowdsourcing?

Jeff Howe: Maybe. I don’t know yet. It’s possible.

VB: I gather you’re back writing for Wired Magazine?

Jeff Howe: Yes, I am.

VB: We’ll look forward to seeing your articles. It has been a pleasure to talk with the original guru of crowdsourcing.

Jeff Howe: Thank you.

Crowdsourcing is outsourcing on steroids. It draws from a global talent base, from communities of interest on the Internet. In the information economy the key resource is human creative labor.

The crowd’s strength is that a large and diverse labor pool produces better solutions than talented, specialized workers. It is collective intelligence. Jeff Howe advises that this is one of the central principles of crowdsourcing. The power of crowdsourcing is: it does not screen out persons according to qualifications or other attributes such as nationality.

Without a doubt, whole segments of the economy will be dramatically changed. We only have to look at what is happening with the creative industries, such as stock photographs and music. And we are witnessing only the beginning of a radically changed future.

Jeff Howe has been a journalist for fifteen years. He is a contributing editor at Wired magazine. He covers the entertainment industry among other subjects and has recently returned to Wired after a leave of absence, so he could dedicate his time to Crowdsourcing.

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