Dialogue Around “Crowdsourcing” Quote

“Crowdsourcing poses a tantalizing question: What if the solutions to our greatest problems weren’t waiting to be conceived, but already existed somewhere, just waiting to be found, in the warp and weave of this vibrant human network?” ~Jeff Howe

Me: Crowdsourcing is not a democratic practice. It is a corporate practice. The crowd is used as cheap labour.

Our greatest problems are hunger and homelessness, and these problems are maintained by a capitalist logic, capitalist policy, capitalist decisions, and capitalist practices.

Do we really need to bring on the exploitation of the many for the profit of the few?

Response: Rodger, are you saying Wikipedia is just about a corporation using cheap labour? Crowdsourcing is a process and mode of production. Yes it’s true that it can be exploited by corporations as well. It is true that crowdsourcing is not necessarily democratic. In terms of the use of it for wikepedia, I think it’s exciting.

Me: ‎”Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D.” This is from Jeff Howe’s article on crowdsourcing (I almost typed crowdsurfing).

Response: ya I know, I read his book. Howe takes a business perspective alot of the time because that’s his world view. I don’t share his view of it in that sense. I do agree with much of what he has to say in regards to it changing our social practices and institutions for the better – and also the potential for crowdsourcing in general -hence the quote. I’m excited about the wikipedia side of it, and agree that the commercial application is problematic.

Me: Wikipedia was designed on the principles of open source. These are the principles that capitalists are exploiting for cheap labour. The huge difference is that the product of open source collaboration remains open. With crowdsourcing the “solution” becomes a product sold back to the crowd which created it.

This isn’t a minor distinction to be optimistically overlooked. 

If our interest is democracy and social justice, then we should be developing our criticism of the practices that go against these ends.

Response: meh, crowdsourcing has a board definition that includes both Wikipedia and commercial applications – some open, some not. Just because you say it’s close, doesn’t make it so.
Sidekick: people are idiots… you should maek your own opinion and ignor everyone else
Me:  Ha, Ha. I was just going to let this go. but this last comment is too much. Clearly there are idiots among us, but it’s a question of democracy whether to ignore them or not.

I get what you’re doing Steve. You’re using Howe’s coinage as synonymous with, or at least containing the meaning of, open source/free software (documentation). You’re using the word to express a spirit of collaboration. I get that.

I am not opposed to that spirit of collaboration. I was not opposing that part of the quote as you were using it.

Did you at all see the distinction I was trying to make? No. You had made your own opinion and ignored completely the distinction I was suggesting. (This was followed by a little cheer from your fans.) (Steve, you know I’m getting a kick out of writing this.)

There are Ayn Rand quotes that express exciting ideas. But for someone interested in social justice through democratic practice, the way she used the words makes them unusable for our desired expression. Another example, the democracy we say we live in contains Alex Hundert’s recent treatment. And this isn’t really jumping all over the place. Out-sourcing is part of the etymology of the word/practice I’m objecting to. This form of corporate/economic domination is in line with the G20 policy Hundert was speaking against.

And again I don’t deny that the broad definition of crowdsourcing co-opts words more useful to the practice of democracy like collaboration, community-based and participatory. What I’m objecting to is the subversive movement of the ideas behind corporate domination into democratic movements.

Response: oh boy, Rodger if you have this much to say about this quote, you’re going to love my next column on the subject – by love I mean hate 🙂 I actually see crowdsourcing and open source software’s meaning/values as different – crowdsourcing is… more board and more specific in some ways. Howe describe a bunch of categories like “crowd funding” that probably can’t be considered an open source software thing. There’s lots of crossover but I’m not trying to conflate the two. I’d say crowdsourcing grew out of the practices/processes of open source software development.I don’t agree with alot of what Howe says, but he’s no Ayn Rand. He celebrates the practices/process associated with crowd sourcing no matter where they are found. I don’t agree with that, but I take his point on process.

I just don’t think crowd sourcing is simply a tool of corporate domination. I don’t see it as being the new outsourcing, or even being about exploitation. It can be, depending on who’s using it and for what purpose. I find the positive public benefit applications of it exciting, and that’s what I’m focusing on.


Third Party: you’re talking past each other here -focusing either on the level of discourse (how is the term ‘crowdsourcing’ mobilized as part of a broader ideology that co-opts ideals of collaboration for capitalist ends?) or on the level of practice (how are certain manifestations of crowdsourcing a new way of subverting capitalist practices?). you’re both right, and both making excellent points.

for me, this just raises a couple of important questions. when do we try to expose manipulations at the level of discourse, or when do we simply insist on retaining the use of the word to denote the more subversive version of the concept? or: how can we embody a positive vision of what social change can look like without losing our ability to critique?
Me: You’re right about that. We have got to develop our critical faculties. To realize a vision of social change, there needs to first be real change in our practices and relationships. I don’t know if language/meaning will follow the changes in practices and relationships or the other way round or all at once, but chances are, like any change in habit (dieting, working out, quitting smoking, etc.), it’s hard work, and it’s made easier if you do it in a group. I’ve read somewhere that self-criticism is structurally impossible, maybe it was self-analysis, but the point is, most of the time we don’t have a clue what the fuck we’re doing. So our ability to receive criticism, critically and respectfully, is something we need to develop along with our vision for changing the social relationships and practices that we ourselves maintain.



One Response to “Dialogue Around “Crowdsourcing” Quote”

  1. Workers and Wordsmiths « Not Left To Chance Says:

    […] above quote from a dialogue on crowdsourcing is as good a place to start the discussion of meaning in talk of social […]

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