Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Crowdsourcing: Can it change the publishing process?

In a post last week, I explored how a trend like crowdfunding could potentially change the way books get published. While unlikely to revolutionize the process entirely, it is yet another alternative avenue for authors to explore in addition to the “traditional” model.

This week, I want to talk about crowdsourcing.

In short, crowdsourcing occurs when a company or person unleashes a task or a job to the public, much like an open call. Sometimes responders will be paid a nominal fee for their work, sometimes they will be paid a bit more, but many times, they are likely not paid anything at all. Crowdsourcing a job has a certain appeal because:

  • Companies or organizations can leverage a huge talent pool well beyond their own regions
  • Companies can solve problems quickly without interrupting normal work flow
  • Companies do not have to pay an individual to complete the task, and may often pay less (or nothing) to get the work accomplished

So in many respects, crowdsourcing can be an amped-up iteration of oursourcing. As one can imagine, crowdsourcing also has its drawbacks, particularly if the tasks are unpaid. The talent may not always be high quality, and it could take a significant amount of time and resources to sort through the completed work for quality control. Then again, sometimes it works just well enough.

Take Wikipedia or Project Gutenberg. Both of these sites have a clear mission—either to provide a free online encyclopedia or free access to works in the public domain—and volunteers donate their time to make that happen. Now, of course, Wikipedia is a lot different than a peer-reviewed journal, but nevertheless, it is a source that people value, and it provides free content.

A while back, I read a post on Gizmodo about Justin Knapp, the first person to make one million edits on Wikipedia. According to Leslie Horn, the author of the post:

[Knapp] estimates he spends several hours daily editing Wikipedia articles. He’s dedicated, down to ensuring that em dashes and en dashes are used properly. One of his crowning achievements on the site was building the bibliography on the George Orwell entry, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world, a task that took him more than 100 hours. He does extensive work to keep the site’s information on music albums up-to-date.

There are some individuals out there who enjoy careful editing and thorough research, not because it is their job, but simply because they like doing it as a hobby.

A quick search on Google brought me to an article that made a pretty big statement: “Crowdsourcing Could be a New Model for the Publishing Business.” In this article, the author, Michelle York, describes High Gear Media, a media network for automotive-related content.

Berlin [High Gear community manager]  says High Gear has a community of more than 250 writers who do not get paid, but participate for a mix of reasons including participation in a community of passionate automotive writers/enthusiasts, promotion and exposure, community tools, and contests (they have given away things like Apple iPads, trips to test drive the Tesla Roadster, and a mix of cash and prizes for participating).

And there are many other sites that operate on a similar model. There are also editorial services sites that leverage a community of editors and proofreaders to take a look at your work.

Crowdsourcing extends well beyond publishing, of course. Google, for instance, hosted a hacking contest, Pwnium, and challenged individuals to find vulnerabilities in their systems. Two researchers who cracked Google’s web browser, Chrome, won $60,000 each from the tech giant. Though this may seem like a large sum of money, Google was able to create a more secure browser, capitalize on some extra PR, and minimize the long-term costs of these vulnerabilities. Win-win for all involved. But bigger win for Google.

Amazon’s foray into crowdsourcing, on the other hand, is significantly underwhelming. Mechanical Turk, their “marketplace for work,” hosts a range of odd tasks with payouts of a few cents for jobs people could have done themselves in the time it took them to post the job in the first place.

Source: (screenshot)

So clearly, crowdsourcing can work great in some circumstances…and not so well in others.

But can a crowdsourcing model ultimately change work structures in the publishing world? Will it change how editorial and design tasks are completed? No, I don’t think so. The concept has been around for a while now and has yet to truly take off on a really massive scale. But as someone who is pursuing a master’s in publishing, a degree that is not mandatory to succeed in this field, the idea itself is a bit scary. Fortunately, I think there are far too many risks involved and the output would not be strong enough to support a piece of work that people have to pay for. But in the freebie world, I’m sure this is a model that works perfectly fine.

What do you think? Is this just a lot of hype, or do you think we’ll be seeing more of it?


This entry was posted on June 4, 2012 by in Culture, Opinion and tagged , , , .

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