Crowdsourcing: The New Black?

 Editor’s Note:  The following is the first of a three-part series by Tony Chung on crowdsourcing and its impact on technical communication and technical writers.  And because we are talking crowdsourcing, we invite you to participate by commenting here on on the email discussion list.

What’s in a name? To some, the specifics of a name mean absolutely nothing. To others, that same name means absolutely everything. While some believe as Shakespeare wrote: “…a rose by any other name, its smell is sweet…”, Technical Writers in general are more attached to their chosen terms.

Today’s term is “Crowdsourcing”: What is it? What is its relevance to technical communication today? And, the bigger question: Why does my iPhone insist on Capitalizing the C? I researched this topic using simple crowdsourcing methods: General messages posted to public email lists, and direct requests of specific individuals. I hope to see this discussion continue to twist and turn in the comments section below this article.

I’m counting on you; after all, you can’t talk about crowdsourcing unless there’s a crowd.

What, This Old Thing?

But is crowdsourcing really a new term? Or is it merely a buzzword to describe a concept that has always existed? According to Wikipedia, the term crowdsourcing was coined in 2006 when Jeff Howe wrote about the connection between stock photo sites, viral videos, and problem solving by group think in a Wired Magazine article.  In fact, the concept was gaining traction before then, as evidenced by the publication of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds. And what about Wikipedia itself? Isn’t it the ultimate example of crowdsourced documentation?

It sounds like Howe, and others, merely put a finger on the concept of getting others to do your work for you, which even at that time wasn’t entirely new. Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, has often said, “Creativity is the art of disguising your source.” Then he admitted he might have stolen the quote from somewhere. Writers rarely come up with ideas by themselves. Even articles like this one derived from a synthesis of conversation and immersive experience in a specific subject, and then processing the results.  So if “The many are smarter than the few”, (with apologies to writer Michael Shermer, who wrote, “For solving a surprisingly large and varied number of problems, crowds are smarter than individuals,” then perhaps crowdsourcing deserves more than a cursory glance by those of us who develop technical documentation.

Crowdsourcing as Research

Technical writers rely on others–research, customer feedback, and especially subject matter experts–to provide details, discuss schematics and state diagrams, and verify the product or process works as designed. Solo writers and smaller technical communications departments have increasingly found the need to step back from the actual writing work, to find creative solutions to produce the necessary documentation, because the traditional tech pubs approach seems to have less impact the more complicated and connected the world gets.

For instance, I once worked as a technical writer in a team of five that supported 800 technical specialists. To work efficiently with the large group of engineers, we focused our efforts into:

  • communicating the value of good documentation to win and keep business.
  • developing templates and publishing systems.
  • compiling elements for a usage and style guide.
  • training engineers how to write for reuse.

Our goal was to improve the clarity and consistency of the engineers’ source documentation, so that it could be reconstructed by our system automatically to deliver the final product documents. We attempted to provide the right balance of freedom and constraints, which some might even call this a form of controlled crowdsourcing. However, many may know this process by another buzzword: Single sourcing.

Crowdsourcing as a Cultural Phenomenon

So, why has Crowdsourcing become popular all of a sudden? For a possible answer, let’s backtrack to the history of another buzzword: Web 2.0.

Not too long ago, the term Web 2.0 was wildly popularized as “the new web”. Web 1.0 was limited, as it only allowed us to link different pages of text and pictures, embed video and audio, submit information through forms, and interact by clicking on something.

Enter Web 2.0. This revolutionary change allowed us to link different pages of text and pictures, embed video and audio, submit information through forms, and interact by clicking on something.

Did you catch the difference?

After the hoopla had finally quieted down, Tim Berners-Lee explained the joke: There is no difference. Web 2.0 was neither a breakthrough nor a new innovation, but the result of marketing hype. There is no Web 2.0 – there is only the Web, in constant beta. What everyone talked about as Web 2.0 was merely the progression of the Web, as it adapted to the advances in technology. We have seen the future, and the future is us.

The talk pages of the Wikipedia article on Web 2.0 states that “Web 2.0 is a cultural phenomenon, and should be documented as such.” If Web 2.0 was merely the web with its training wheels kicked off, can the same be said of crowdsourcing? Are we following the same pattern of hype first, think later? Or could there be something more about crowdsourcing, as a means to expand the techniques used in collaborative authoring as a form of fact checking and process improvement?

Is Crowdsourcing the New Black?

So this ends part one of our look at crowdsourcing. I’d like to seed the comments pool to get the ball rolling on the topic of Crowdsourcing. For starters:

  • Is crowdsourcing the new black?  And can anyone tell my why my iPhone capitalizes it?
  • How would you define crowdsourcing, based on this discussion?
  • Do you think that crowdsourcing complements or constrains our single-sourcing approaches?
  • What crowdsourcing resources would you recommend for those just starting out?

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

 

Resources on Crowdsourcing

Jeff Howe, The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired magazine, June 2006. [http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html]

Wikpedia Talk Pages on Web 2.0: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Web_2.0#Right_there:_This_whole_page_should_be_a_criticism:_Web_2]

Presentations by Janet Swisher, [http://www.slideshare.net/janetswisher/presentations]

http://cloudcrowd.com

Special thanks to the following for their comments:

  • Jessica Behles
  • Anne Gentle
  • Seth Grimes
  • David Hendler
  • Jen Jobart
  • Tom Johnson
  • Rick Sapir
  • Bill Swallow
  • Janet Swisher
  • Andrew Warren
Tony Chung

Tony Chung has been a rock star, a web programmer, a database and network administrator, a comic book artist, and a magician. Technical communication is the closest he's come to being able to live all of these lives at the same time. He hates walks on the beach, slow dancing to soft music, and candlelit dinners. But keep his espresso flowing and you've won a friend for life.

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