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Crowdsourcing and Participation. Cheaper By the Dozen. An Introduction to “crowdsourcing”

Trebor Scholz / 2012

A few years ago, the telecommunications company Verizon began an experiment with what they called “company-sponsored online communities for customer service,” as part of which unpaid volunteers, motivated by varying degrees of praise, worked as long as 20 hours a week for the company. One of these volunteers reports that he found the experience deeply satisfying because in his role as customer service representative he had the opportunity to help thousands of people. If “handled adeptly,” a study by the telecom giant suggested, such volunteer communities “hold considerable promise.”1
Today, volunteers translate documents, write encyclopedia articles, moderate online discussion groups, fill in surveys, and even provide legal or medical expertise. The Texas Sheriffs Border Coalition used web-based volunteers for their project Virtual Border Watch,2 and a similar setup of surveillance cameras and distributed monitors, called Internet Eyes,3 is used to fight shoplifting in the United Kingdom.
There is, of course, a long tradition of people volunteering in hospitals, soup kitchens, museums, and non-profit organizations. Free labor has taken hold throughout the economy. In fast food restaurants, customers took on some of the work that was traditionally performed by waiters. In grocery stores, shoppers “opt in” to use machines that scan their purchases and accept payment, tasks that were previously performed by a cashier. In the fashion industry, companies like Forever 21 appropriate street graffiti for the design of their clothes without crediting or paying the artist.
Or, take the runaway leader in exploitative digital labor: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). You don’t have to be a media buff to join MTurk’s “elastic workforce” and “people can get paid by the penny or nickel to do tasks that a computer can’t figure out how to do but that even the dimmest bulb, if he’s a human, can do.”4 In one chilling instance, MTurk workers made $ 1.45 an hour, which is exploitative no matter if workers feel used.
Using MTurk, the artist xtine burrough created Mechanical Olympics, which she calls an open version of the Olympic Games where anyone can play and vote for gold medal winners. The Sheep Market,5 by artist Aaron Koblin, is a phalanx of 10,000 sheep, all drawn by random strangers through Amazon.com’s task-distribution mechanism.
While free labor has taken hold throughout the economy, the Internet really is the apex of this phenomenon. “Crowdsourcing,” a term that is sometimes used in this context, describes practices that were traditionally performed by one paid person but can now be more effectively executed by large numbers of people who frequently do not get paid. Often, the term is incorrectly applied to peer-production projects, as I will explain later.
“Crowdsourcing” is a thorny practice that simultaneously inspires unambiguous excitement about the potentials of the Open Web and moral indignation about the exploitation of new formations of labor. While this complexity is not always acknowledged, “crowdsourcing” is mobilized in the service of liberal ideologies bur it is also employed in support of non-commercial and explicitly anti-capitalist projects.
Etymologically, “crowdsourcing“ relates to “outsourcing.“ Companies outsource subcontract tasks to hordes of people online who may get the job done swiftly and at rock-bottom costs. However, the term „crowdsourcing“ mischaracterizes projects that bring together peers to create something because there is no centralized entrepreneur who subcontracts tasks.
While the potential for information monopolists to profit from taking ownership of our data and time is ever-present, it is not always realized. Already in the 1910s, advocates of scientific management, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. and Lillian Gilbreth, conducted time and motion studies, examining every manual twist and turn of workers. Their goal, however, was not merely efficiency and profit (often seen as Frederick Taylor’s chief objective) but ultimately the welfare of laborers. Similarly today, “crowdsourcing” can serve the public good, but it also makes human beings available as resources for the maximization of profits.
The discussion about digital labor is sometimes associated with a dourness that frames all work as exploitation, therefore crushing the pleasure of those who generate and submit content. Why would they remix a video or write a piece of software if their labor of love merely fills the pockets of the mega-rich? One reason for concern is that the flow of information is largely invisible and exploitation is rarely obvious, In the face of the booming data-mining industry, we should not think of ourselves as tourists who tip their hosts in the land of network culture without considering the broader questions about exploitation, pleasure, labor, possibility, and utopia.
Since the privatization of the Internet backbone in the early 1990s, centralized hubs became magnets for online traffic and by the end of the decade, the Internet starred to deliver on the promise of serving low-friction marketplaces. In 2004, the Italian media theorist Tiziana Terranova6 explained that the so-called new economy is built on the cultural and mental labor of Internet users, and only five years later, the Web 2.0 ideology starred to lend a patina of novelty to long-existing technologies that made it remarkably easier to play online.
“Crowdsourcing” is just one aspect of this labor market. It is one form of digital labor that has the goal of distributing the workload from one (usually paid) individual to many (frequently unwaged) volunteers. In his 2006 article in Wired Magazine,7 Jeff Howe first coined the term. Wikinomics co-author Don Tapscott proclaims that the old, ironclad vessels of the industrial era sink under the crushing waves where smart firms connect to external ideas and energies to regain the buoyancy they require to survive.8 Crowdsource-or-perish: learn how to instrumentalize the cognitive and geographic surplus of Internet users and your business will thrive. For Michel Bauwens of the Peer-to-Peer Foundation, “crowdsourcing” reflects the rest of capitalism. He defines it as “the most capitalist model [of digital labor], which … captures part of the value created by … outside producers.”9 The private firm profits from the public pool.
Exploitation, a term that means many things to many people, doesn’t only take place by way of data collection, privacy invasion, and utilization of our social graph; it is also about cultural power, exerted all across society. As Tapscott suggests, “this is a new mode of production that is emerging in the heart of the most advanced economies in the world-producing a rich new economic landscape.”10 While Bauwens rejects the corporate framing of co-creation, he stresses the potential of public-minded peer production.
In everyday parlance, “crowdsourcing” and “wisdom of the crowd” are used interchangeably, which is misleading. Crowdsourcing can but does not have to enable the “wisdom of the crowds.” American journalist James Surowiecki framed it as “aggregation of information in groups, [which results] in decisions that … are often better than what could have been made by any single member of the group.”11 “Wisdom of the crowds,” illustrated by sites like Yahoo!Answers or social-referral websites like Digg.com, is contingent on critical mass of participants and diversity of opinion.
Without airbrushing the crisis in digital labor, we need to acknowledge what legal scholar Yochai Benkler holds up as hierarchy-defying, and often unpaid, commons-based peer production.12 While commercial interests exert an iron grip on the Internet, there are also large, meaningful projects that are not market-oriented. People do not contribute to Wikipedia to make a buck, the encyclopedia benefits from the wisdom-of-the-crowd effect; it is the quintessential example of peering. An online encyclopedia that approaches four million articles in English alone “outcollaborates” commercial competitors. But Wikipedia also benefits from the dynamics of the digital economy, specifically a symbiosis with Google. Historian and philosopher Philip Mirowski reminds us that the success of Wikipedia is traceable to how the site fits into the larger business plan of commodification of the Internet.
Wikipedia materialized as a Godsend for Google’s business plan. Moreover, the supposed Chinese wall between Google and Wikipedia makes it possible for wiki-workers to think they are squirreling for the betterment of humankind, while. Google positions itself co be the premier portal for information on the web and the biggest corporate success story of the “New Information Economy.“13
Mirowski’s comment shows that Wikipedia and other projects whose contributors are not driven by profit motives are not outside the dynamics of the digital economy. The honorable wiki-work, performed by thousands, also, indirectly, aids corporate titans like Google. Nor all projects thrive on the collaborate-or-perish principle and only few get around paying “rent“ to corporate landowners. Peer projects are not outside the digital economy even if producers are not driven by market motives.
A chief scientist at the software company Arbor Networks reports that in 2009 “30 large companies – ’hyper giants’ like Limelight, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and YouTube – generate and consume a disproportionate 30% of all Internet traffic.”14 In his new book The Master Switch (2010), legal scholar Tim Wu identifies a clear and present danger of this centralization. Using the radio industry, the early telephone industry, and the film industry as historical reference points, he analyzes the risk of the conglomeration of today’s main information monopolists into a singular consolidated monopoly. The smaller the number of companies that hold most of the traffic/attention on the Internet, the greater becomes their power to flip the master switch, which may entail paying their executives salaries far in excess of their social worth (in fact, more than any human could possibly be worth) while other actors only receive pitiful slices of the accumulated wealth. In Common as Air (2010), Lewis Hyde asks if there can be a capitalist commons, a commons inside or adjacent to capitalism. For Benkler, networked peer production is such an alternative, but who owns and profits from the platforms on which most online sociality is playing out and the above statistic give a clear answer: the vast majority of people who spend time online do so on corporate real estate; their files are not stored on individual servers in people’s homes. Even activist Facebook groups about the Monks in Burma or the Egyptian April 6th Youth Movement contribute to that company’s baseline. There really is no “outside” of the digital economy.
Going forward, let’s tease apart some of the dangers – what I call the violence of participation – from the promises of commons-based peer production.

The Promise
New York University professor Gabriela Coleman argues that we need to “emphasize partial, positive solutions all the while noting some of their limitations because if we’re going to criticize [capitalism/digital labor] in a wholesale sort of way, then we’re left without alternatives.”15 For Coleman, key examples include the developers of software such as Mozilla and Linux which have created these projects largely through collaborative, volunteer-run initiatives such as Debian. Debian is a project that joins more than 1,000 software developers who create various versions of the Linux operating system that can be downloaded free of charge.
Other important, positive examples of “crowdsourcing” include the Science Commons, which is a project by the Creative Commons that aims to enable scientific research by making resources easier to find and access. A shortlist of other examples of commons-based peer projects should include the private/public volunteer computing project SET1@Home, which uses networked computers worldwide to analyze radio telescope data in an experiment to find extraterrestrial intelligence.
Projects like Wikipedia, Debian developers, Science Commons, and Flickr Commons show the promise of “crowdsourcing“ as a practice that benefits the public interest. Many initiatives are hybrid; they are situated between private and public interests. Disturbingly, private and public interests grow closer and closer. Google’s re-Captcha,16 for example, is a service that helps the company to digitize books and newspapers more accurately by capturing 150,000 hours of distributed volunteer labor each day.
Yahoo, which owns the photo-sharing site Flickr, profits from public investment as more users are drawn to its service because of the wealth of government-contributed historical photographs. The Library of Congress has moved a large number of photographs to the Flickr Commons17 in hopes that Flickr users would create metadata for these images, an activity for which the Library of Congress does not have the resources. Government-provided services are therefore transformed into work performed by the public. In their spare time, citizens execute work that was traditionally financed by taxes, deepening the broad assault on the leisure time of citizens. Tax-financed workers previously performed these very services. In a system in which the public interest is an afterthought, “crowdsourcing” is used to mend systemic failures.
Various networked digital art exhibits are de facto celebrations of distributed creativity. The artists Peter Baldes and Marc Horowitz, for example, jointly take a virtual trip across the United States using Google Maps Street View. Other cultural producers ask for contributions through an open call for submissions. They become context providers who provide a vehicle for the aggregation and distribution of “crowdsourced“ artwork.
Learning to Love You More18 by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, for example, offers a context, a framework, for people to contribute their creativity to a platform set up by the artists who have staged exhibitions in galleries and museums with the collected material. The artist Perry Bard created Man With a Movie Camera (Global Remake),19 which is a participatory video shot by people around the world who are invited to record images interpreting the original script of Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and upload them to her site.
Global Lives Project20 and One Day on Earth21 are participatory documentary projects that do not highlight the facilitating (star) artists. They celebrate the possibilities of networked action and co-creativity. The Delocator22 project by the artist xtine burrough is a database of independently owned coffee shops, created by volunteer participants. All of these projects bring forth the shining potentials of “crowdsourcing.”

The Violence of Participation
Today, companies that make their boundaries porous to external ideas and human capital outperform companies that rely solely on the internal resources and capabilities.
The originator of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, warned that the role of new technology under capitalism is to intensify the exploitation of workers.23 Indeed, the Internet is an information-generating global machine in which unwitting participants in distributed labor become the most frequent victims of exploitation. In the above quotation, Tapscott frames what I may call exploitation literacy for the twenty-first century as a necessity for the survival of companies who merely have to learn to be more receptive for raking in outside resources.24 Social software ecosystems – single labor interfaces, privatized collection points – absorb, aggregate, analyze, and sell every iota of data and generate a slice of Web wealth. On the Internet, we are all qualified to labor, and for-profit entities get “all the work without the worker.”25 Every click is monitored and big brother is (also) you, watching. Even fan creativity becomes “just another set of productions in the realm of the creative industries.”26
The artist Burak Arikan created Metamarkets27 a project that allows members to trade shares of their Social Web assets from social networking, social bookmarking, photo- and video-sharing services, creating broader awareness of the cycles of value creation.
The virtual world Second Life (SL) offers a social milieu in which consumers coproduce the products that they then consume. Environments like SL provide a context for experimentation and play – an experiential nexus, and entertaining labor interface – and then, through surreptitious tracking, seize on the things that users create. What is most astonishing is that this entire process of expropriation has been so breathtakingly normalized. The art project Invisible Threads28 by Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse calls attention to that. Invisible Threads is based on a factory in SL in which virtual workers can produce jeans without leaving the comfort of their own home or Internet cafe.
Digital labor and domestic work, mostly shouldered by women, have much in common. Companies circumvent labor regulations if people work at home and any hour of the day could be work time. Work such as making a baby laugh or caring for the sick doesn’t result in a tangible product, which makes it easier to not think of it as labor, and consequently these activities are frequently unpaid, undervalued, and largely go unnoticed.
The inequalities between the largely unpaid workforce and the corporate hyper giants are growing. This relationship is asymmetrical and capitalizes on free labor.
The geography of this asymmetry places those who live on less than $2 a day at the bottom of the participation gap. For employers, responding to the global financial crunch, the service TxtEagle29 delivers access to a cheap labor force in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. On their website, TxtEagle invites companies to “Harness the capacity of 2 billion people in over 80 countries to accomplish work with unprecedented speed, scale and quality.” The company interfaces workers with the overdeveloped world through their cell phones, exemplifying what Washington Post writer Matt Miller calls “Liberalism’s crisis on trade.”30 Miller asks, “Why is it ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ to stop poor workers abroad from using the one competitive advantage they have?” We may ask how sustainable and transformative income from companies like TxcEagle really is. Miller might be right that some workers develop marketable skills but he ignores the globalization utopia of “crowdsourcing“ because such (exploitative) labor practices would not even be possible without the uneven global development produced in the first place by the Global North.

Avenues for Action
How can we live and politicize our troubled complicity in practices of expropriation? Which values really matter to us and are worth defending?
In the struggle over the terms of our own participation and in the search for escape routes, some suggest going off the social media grid. Indian legal scholar Lawrence Liang recently asked what “would be a Facebook without faces or a Twitter without tweeters?”31 While such withdrawal sounds like a desirable escape route, participation is also a personal and professional imperative for those who are not privileged enough to be able to log off.
Is unionization a realistic way to resist the global forces that are expropriating their lives? Bottom-up transnational labor organization is still nearly non-existent and few users seem to get prickly in the face of their exploitation. Should we accompany user communities and make them aware that their rights should exceed use rights, similar to what the labor movement did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? We might want to rethink how click workers of the world can organize that space and see if it is possible to organize online as if it were a sweatshop.
Pointing to Negri and Hardt’s latest book Commonwealth (2009), the Austrian-Swedish scholar Christian Fuchs proposes a communist (self-managed) Internet for a communist society.32 Such a vision that builds on a full-fledged revolution is an all-or-nothing proposal, which turns us into complaining bystanders; it does not expand the capacity for action in the near future. In this introduction to the uneasy, yet widespread, concept of “crowdsourcing,” I provided a glimpse of the inequalities and vulnerabilities of expropriated publics. In the near future, change will come through policy regulation that addresses transparency, centralization, user rights beyond use rights, and raised awareness of systemic injustice. Change is also about an imagination of a new political language that puts deceiving language like “crowdsourcing” to the test. Also, artworks can play an important role; they can function as incursions that shed light on the conditions of labor and cultural production. However, critiques of digital labor, and specifically “crowdsourcing,” should move us beyond the attitude that angrily rejects what is but has no clearly articulated vision for what should be now or in the near future. What’s ahead is exhilarating: I’m fired up about the possibilities of “crowdsourcing” but also cautious.

Dieser Text erschien zuerst in: „Net Works: Case Studies in Web Art and Design” edited by Xtine Burroughs, Routledge 2012, S. 47–54.

1.)Steve Lohr, “Unboxed: Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer,“ New York Times. Online: www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26unbox.html (last modified April 25, 2009).
2.)BlueServo: www.texasborderwacch.com (accessed September 12, 2010).
3.)Internet Eyes: http://interneteyes.co.uk (accessed September 12, 2010).
4.)Jonathan Zittrain, Jonathan Zittrain at The Internet as Playground and Factory [Video] (2009): http://vimeo.com/8203737 (accessed September 1, 2010).
5.)Aaron Koblin, The Sheep Market: www.thesheepmarket.com (accessed September 1, 2010).
6.)Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, London: Pluto Press, 2004: 94.
7.)Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired Magazine 14 (2006). Online: www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html (accessed November 14, 2010).
8.)Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, New York: Penguin, 2010: 63.
9.)Michel Bauwens, Michel Bauwens at The Internet as Playground and Factory [Video] (2009): http://vimeo.com/7919113 (accessed September l, 2010).
10.)Tapscott and Williams, op. cit.: 2 5 .
11.)James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds, New York: Anchor Books, 2005: 63.
12.)Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
13.)Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009: 425.
14.)Arbor Networks, the University of Michigan, and Merit Network, Two-Year Study of Global Internet Traffic Will Be Presented At NANOG47. Online: www.arbornerworks.com/en/arbornetworks-the-university-of-michigan-and-merit-network-ro-present-rwo-year-study-ofglobal-inc-2.hrml
15.)Gabriela Coleman, Gabriela Coleman at The Internet as Playground and Factory [Video] (2009): http://vimeo.com/7122412 (accessed September 1, 2010).
16.)Google, reCaptcha: www.google.com/recaptcha/learnmore (accessed September 12, 2010).
17.)Flickr, The Commons: www.flickr.com/commons (accessed September 12, 2010).
18.)Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, Learning to Love You More: www.learningroloveyoumore.com (accessed September 12, 2010).
19.)Perry Bard, Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake: http://dziga.perrybard.ner (accessed September 12, 2010).
20.)Global Lives: http://globallives.org/en (accessed September 12, 2010).
21.)One Day On Earth: www.onedayonearth.org (accessed September 12, 2010).
22.)xtine burrough, Delocator: http://delocaror.ner (accessed September 12, 2010).
23.)Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to Global Villages, London: Pluto Press, 2007: 60.
24.)Tapscott and Williams, op. cit.: 21.
25.)Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer [DVD], directed by Alex Rivera, France: Anthony Bregman, 2008.
26.)Abigail de Kosnik, Abigail de Kosnik at The Internet as Playground and Factory [Video] (2009): http://vimeo.com/7956499 (accessed September 1, 2010).
27.)Burak Arikan, MetaMarkets: http://meta-markets.com (accessed September 12, 2 010).
28.)Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse, Invisible Threads: www.doublehappinessjeans.com/10-steps-ro-your-own-virtual-sweatshop (accessed September 12, 2010).
29.)Txteagle: http://txteagle.com (accessed September 12, 2010).
30.)Matt Miller, “Liberalism’s moral crisis on trade,” Washington Post, October 7, 2010.
31.)In his unpublished talk presented at the Open Video Conference 2010, Lawrence Liang made this comment. Online: www.openvideoconference.org/agenda
32.)Fuchs proposed a “Communist Internet in a Communist Society” in his talk at The Internet as Playground and Factory conference in November 2009. Christian Fuchs at The Internet as Playground and Factory [Video] (2009): http://vimeo.com/7954268 (accessed September 1, 2010).

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Trebor Scholz

ist Autor, Künstler und Professor für Kultur und Medien an der  The New School in New York City. Er arbeitet an den Schnittstellen von Internet, Gesellschaft, digitaler Arbeit, Internetaktivismus und E-Learning. Er veröffentlicht Aufsätze und Bücher, z. B. „From Mobile Playgrounds to Sweatshop City“ (mit Laura Y. Liu, 2011), und ist Herausgeber u. a. von „Learning Through Digital Media“, „Digital Labor“ (beide 2012), „The Art of Free Cooperation“ (2007).


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Arikan, Burak  ·  Baldes, Peter  ·  Bard, Perry  ·  Bauwens, Michel  ·  Benkler, Yochai  ·  Crouse, Jeff  ·  Fletcher, Harrell  ·  Fuchs, Christian  ·  Gabriela  ·  Gilbreth, Frank Bunker  ·  Gilbreth, Lilian  ·  Hardt, Michael  ·  Horowitz, Marc  ·  Howe, Jeff  ·  Hyde, Lewis  ·  July, Miranda  ·  Koblin, Aaron  ·  Liang, Lawrence  ·  Miller, Matt  ·  Negri, Antonio  ·  Rothenberg, Stephanie  ·  Scholz, Trebor  ·  Surowiecki, James  ·  Tapscott, Don  ·  Taylor, Frederick  ·  Terranova, Tiziana  ·  Wiener, Norbert  ·  Wu, Tim  ·  xtine