Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crowdsourcing - the book

I read Jeff Howe's Crowdsourcing. To me, this book has much the same texture as Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. I feel that I benefited from reading both books, which include numerous anecdotal examples on how technology and new business models have empowered individuals in unimaginable ways. At the same time, I feel like both Friedman and Howe understate the societal damage. I don't want to shoot the messenger in either case (as Friedman was targeted), but that's my perception. An example: Howe reports the impact of services like iStockPhoto on the stock photo industry and the fact that Bruce Livingstone, iStockPhoto's founder, made $25 million off the sale of the company to Getty Images, while the earnings of stock photographers plunged. Howe doesn't note the irony when quoting an iStock executive who asserts that "the community is the company" (188). True, it's just change, but it also seems like an architecture for ever-increasing economic inequality.

The value in Jeff Howe's book is that he makes the reader think about how to successfully build services in this radically new environment. Continuing with the iStockPhoto example, the author describes the role of iStockalypses (iStockPhoto-sponsored meetings) and self-starting user meetings in fostering a sense of community and meaning among active iStockers. In short, the corporate strategy in using crowdsourcing has to be well thought out and one that respects the larger community's willingness to contribute its "excess capacity" (its time and skills) (196).

One unsympathetic victim of technological change is the recording industry Led by RIAA president Cary Sherman and attorneys like Matt Oppenheim, the RIAA essentially declared war on its own customers in recent years through a string of high-profile lawsuits. For that reason, Howe's coverage of the band Hawthorne Heights in the book is refreshing. At an intuitive level, the more open or sharing approach of reduced music sales, with the trade-off revenues from concert ticket sales and other products is just a better model for the 21st century. Certainly a better model than predatory lawsuits against your own customers....

Howe explores the subtleties of crowdsourcing, including the distinction between crowdsourcing and crowdcasting ("someone with a problem broadcasts it to a large, undefined network of potential solvers" [134]), a distinction that I didn't fully understand before reading this book.

Overall, a worthwhile read, though increasingly dated. The 2009 edition that I read includes a status update from the author.

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