Crowdsourcing: Ethical and effective?

Crowdsourcing: Ethical and effective?

Question: Crowdsourcing  is alternatively seen as an exploitative practice/source of cheap labour and a way to more fully engage the public in humanities research as opposed to being passive consumers of that research. If both these perspectives have a grain of truth in them, what is best practice in engaging communities but not exploiting them?


The ambivalence which the above inquiry suggests exists towards crowdsourcing is, I believe, at least partially caused by much ambiguity and incertitude relating to the term itself. Howe (2006) coined the term as: “the act 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.”

This association with the practice of outsourcing which Howe’s nascent definition employs may have played a key role in the unfortunate notion that crowdsourcing is an essentially exploitative activity. Outsourcing itself is a practice which, fairly or not, conjures images of underpaid outside agents doing the work of a now unemployed native workforce. The ethical appraisal of outsourcing is a contentious topic and not the concern of this blog. However, a recognition of the emotive nature of the term underpins this blogs assertion that crowdsourcing has become somehow guilty through association.

Indeed, the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, echoes this perception in his own post of 2013:

The idea behind crowdsourcing is to seek the cheapest labor of all by getting the general public to do some work for you. I think this is a concept that is offensive and which deeply misunderstands what is going on in the great communities of the Internet.  For some entrepreneurs in the consumer internet space it provides a wicked mental trap that leads them to pursue unrealistic projects.

Wales’s concern and his allusion to factors of commerciality is indicative of this unpleasant ambiguity. Furthermore, his somewhat reductive treatment of the term may equally cause offence to some of its more noble practitioners.

A more useful categorisation?

As a reaction to the boundaries, or indeed lack thereof, evoked by the term crowdsourcing, more specific varieties have stemmed from this relatively new concept. “Nichesourcing” and “community-sourcing” are two such examples where institutions have tried to avoid some of the connotations associated with crowdsourcing by focussing on smaller better defined crowds.

The genesis of much of this will to better define is from within cultural institutions such as galleries and museums. Cultural heritage is certainly one area where this aversion to, or extension of, crowdsourcing concepts are developing fastest. Lori Byrd Philips alludes to these developing debates and specifically (2015) discussions surrounding “participatory culture” and the interesting notion of “open authority”.

Open Authority Spectrum
Open Authority Spectrum

That cultural heritage should be the operative field in much of these developing notions should not be a surprise. The tension between nonprofit and commercial definitions of shared terms are bound to prove inadequate for at least one side. Mia Ridge has studied many cultural heritage projects that have employed various forms of crowdsourcing. In her 2013 paper for Curator she tries to demonstrate an important distinction:

Unlike commercial crowdsourcing, participation in cultural heritage crowdsourcing is driven by pleasure, not profit. Rather than monetary recompense, [such] projects provide an opportunity for altruistic acts, activated by intrinsic motivations, applied to inherently engaging tasks, encouraged by a personal interest in the subject or task.

To extend this notion, it appears the composition of the crowd itself can distinguish an effective and ethically upright crowdsourcing from an exploitative one. Clay Shirky via Oomen and Aroyo (2011) notes:

Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare—to love. The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.

To answer your question…

So if the composition of the crowd is so crucial to the potential outcomes, and the open call concept is equally important to the voluntarist principals, how can a crowd be to some extent predetermined? A focus on the incentives at the design stage of a project could help preselect those dedicated amateurs.

Ridge (2013) has identified the incentives participants reported as being most manifest in their motivations to take part and continue working: “Fun, the pleasure in doing hobbies, enjoyment in learning, mastering new skills and practicing existing skills, recognition, community and a passion for the subject.”

Designing a project with these incentives in mind could assemble a crowd who may not just give the project the best chance of succeeding but who could also, perhaps more importantly, reap the greatest benefits from participating.




Owens, Trevor. ‘Digital Cultural Heritage And The Crowd’. Curator 56.1 (2013): 121-130. Web.

Ridge, Ms Mia, ed. Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014.

Carletti, Laura, et al. “Digital humanities and crowdsourcing: An exploration.” Museums and the Web, 2013.

Causer, Tim, and Melissa Terras. ““Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work”: Transcribe Bentham and crowdsourcing manuscript collections.” (2014): 57-88.

Ridge, Mia. “From tagging to theorizing: Deepening engagement with cultural heritage through crowdsourcing.” Curator: The Museum Journal 56.4 (2013): 435-450.,. ‘.Why You’ll Never Hear Me Call Wikipedia “Crowdsourcing” | The New Media Consortium’. N. p., 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015

Howe, Jeff. (2006)

Wales, Jimmy,. ‘Why Does Jimmy Wales Think Crowdsourcing Is A Horrible Term? – Quora’. N. p., 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. (2013)

Oomen, Johan, and Lora Aroyo. “Crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain: opportunities and challenges.” Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies. ACM, 2011.

Byrd Philips, Lori.,. ‘The Participatory Museum And A New Authority – MIDEA’. N. p., 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Byrd Philips, Lori.,. ‘Why You’ll Never Hear Me Call Wikipedia “Crowdsourcing” | The New Media Consortium’. N. p., 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.


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