The Power of Design: Crowdsourcing vs Collaboration

Earlier in the quarter, I blogged about my first (overwhelmingly positive) impressions of Beth Simone Noveck’s book Wiki Government.  One of the themes I wanted to return to is her discussion of crowdsourcing versus collaboration:

Collaboration is distinct from the concept of crowdsourcing. Jeff Howe, an editor at Wired magazine, coined the term crowdsourcing [Noveck’s emphasis] to describe the burgeoning phenomenon of “taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” (He does use Peer-to-Patent as his one public sector example.)  But whereas crowdsourcing generally refers to aggregating the responses of individuals across a network, collaborative democracy aspires to the kind of intentional peer production and shared group effort of Wikipedia, in which volunteers sign up to write encyclopedia entries as a group. While crowdsourcing activities like prediction markets aggregate individual preferences, collaboration implies more robust and diverse coordination structures that enable people to divvy up tasks and roles.  Collaboration does not so much imply throwing people at a problem as coordinating the right people in different roles. Role differentiation not only helps to structure work done across a distance, it also conveys the sense of working as a team. Unlike peer production, which includes purely civic, botton-up activities, collaborative democracy emphasizes shared work by a government institution and a network of participants. Collaborative participation is the “smoke-filled aquarium” – to borrow an overheard coinage – that combines open-source volunteer participation with government’s central coordination, issue framing, and bully pulpit. [pg 18; emphasis mine]

Now, I don’t know if I agree with Noveck’s distinction. My experience is that people often think of crowdsourcing efforts as involving some form of coordination and collaboration, not just aggregation.  For instance, many view Wikipedia as a crowdsourcing success story, myself included. But I do think she brings up an important point.  What she’s really getting at is the question of design. Of the importance of designing crowdsourcing projects to facilitate cooperation.  

Kate Ray’s (@kraykray) insightful, must-read blog post, Hive Architecture, questions the unexamined, often blind, acceptance of the “wisdom of crowds.” Her point is that design (architecture, structure) matters in reaping the benefits of collective intelligence.  

If I told you that a big group of people is better at doing things than one person alone, or even a smaller group of people, you’d probably agree with me. Science benefits from collaboration, as does carrying heavy objects. Kitchen wisdom says that ‘many hands make light work.’ And then there’s Wikipedia.

But if I told you that big groups of people are terrible at doing things, you’d probably still agree with me. Large organizations are inefficient, and mob mentality causes regular people to make stupid/appalling decisions. Our kitchen sage contradicts itself with the warning that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth.’ There was the recession.

Isn’t there a contradiction here? The web is brimming with discussions about the value or deficiencies of social production and over ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ versus ‘the stupidity of the crowd,’ as if it were one or the other, but the truth is that a group is neither wise nor stupid, powerful nor impotent.

So what makes a crowd smart and successful at collaboration?  Ray:

Groups aren’t necessarily smart or powerful, but they could be. It isn’t enough to get a bunch of people together in a room or on a website with a great vision of what they could accomplish. The group’s potential hinges on its structure. [emphasis hers]

Design is a theme Noveck returns to over and over again in Wiki Government. Not surprisingly; the successful implementation of her ideas (read peer-to-patent), depend  on it!  We’re still mastering the design of websites and online spaces to help foster certain outcomes, i.e. sharing and collaboration and community.  As Ray writes, 

There’s a lot to learn. The Internet is still so young that things are exploding on top of it without us really knowing why. The slightest variation in group structure – say, introducing the one-way relationship of ‘follower’ in place of the two-way relationship of ‘friend’ – can have a huge impact on the nature of the group, and make or break a start-up. There are interesting experiments in group formation everywhere and new trends, like incorporating gaming techniques into social network platforms, are rife with implications about human motivation. Academically, all of this is fascinating, but ultimately I’m interested in learning how to build more deliberately-crafted platforms that will help us work together better.

I couldn’t agree more! I first got turned on to the power of design in a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) design class I took in the fall of 2009 (one of my first classes in grad school). Since reading Wiki Government, I’ve become even more enamored with design, user experience, and usability testing; gobbling up anything and everything I can on the subjects.  As we’ve seen with peer-to-patent and Wikipedia (and a host of other examples), understanding this piece of the equation has the potential of unlocking all sorts of wonderful, world-changing collaborations. 

Shameless plug alert: I’m looking for a design and/ or user experience internship to develop myself in this area.  If you know of any, please give me a holler!

Posted via email from Corazon y Mente

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One response to “The Power of Design: Crowdsourcing vs Collaboration

  1. Pingback: Beth Simone Noveck’s Modest Proposal « Corazon y Mente

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