The dark side of the crowd

When it comes to problem-solving, “two heads are better than one”, the saying goes. And in the cyberworld, those ‘two heads’ are increasingly morphing into hundreds, perhaps, thousands of anonymous heads around the world. Crowdsourcing is the new mantra for everyone from cities (San Francisco) to companies (NineSigma) tackling issues or chasing opportunities, yet it comes with its critics.

In his 2004 book, Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argued that groups of independent-thinking individuals often produced decisions that were better than would have been produced by any one member of the group. That ‘wisdom of crowds’ premise has been adopted, adapted and turbocharged by technology platforms that enable fast, real-time communication among distributed communities. The crowdsourcing model is now seen, especially by corporates, as a relatively low-cost method for seeking input from diverse sources.

That raises red flags for some. “The forces that enable crowdsourcing are being used to get thousands of people to do work for free, with a chance of getting paid only if their work is selected for use,” says Scott Belsky, who established the online creative community, Behance. “This is fine for hobbyists or friendly competitions offering a token prize. But in a business context, it doesn’t pay for either party.” Belsky says this situation will continue until new business models are developed to benefit both parties in a sustainable way.

There are also risks both organisations and participants should be aware of, according to Paul Dombowsky, founder and CEO of Ideavibe and the charity crowdfunding initiative, Fundchange. These range from intellectual property conflicts through to privacy issues, brand damage and simple failure when ‘the crowd’ doesn’t produce a solution. “Crowdsourcing risks shouldn’t get in the way of enabling open innovation or citizen engagement at your organisation,” Dombowsky says. However, the “risks cannot go ignored, as wrong turns can have a negative impact on the success of your crowdsourcing or crowdfunding project.”

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