Crowdsourcing: Should Practitioners in Digital Humanities be Wary of the Term?


Crowdsourcing is applied as a model by the private and public sector and also, more recently by the non-profit, voluntary and educational sectors. While, all sectors use the same term – but does it mean the same thing?

Brabham proposes crowdsourcing as “an online, distributed problem solving and production model where organizations leverage the collective intelligence of online communities for their benefit” (“Research”). Pierre Levy coined the term collective intelligence in 1997, which Jenkins explains as the “ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members” (27). However, Dunn notes that the application of the term crowdsourcing in an academic context tends to be at variance to the meaning of the term in a business context where it was originally coined (in Digital Humanities Network).

Much of the literature suggests that the term “crowdsourcing” was coined by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, and published as a neologism in Wired magazine, in June 2006 (Howe; Brabham; Dunn; Hopkins). Howe defines crowdsourcing 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” (qtd. in Although, when Howe referred to crowdsourcing in the original article, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”, he was explaining an online phenomenon that was already being practiced in a commercial sense by companies such as iStockphoto since 2000; InnoCentive since 2001 and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk since 2005. Further examples of commercial crowdsourcing are provided by Howe with Threadless since 2000 which he labels as “Pure, Unadulterated (and Scalable) Crowdsourcing” and Brabham adds Goldcorp since 2000 and Doritos Crash the Super Bowl in 2006 as other quality examples (Crowdsourcing 26-30). Indeed, Brabham suggests that crowdsourcing originated in the “nascent period” of the transition of the World Wide Web from its existence with static pages, to its dynamic existence as Web 2.0 (Crowdsourcing 17). Presently, the crowdsourding model is applied to a variety of projects in the public, voluntary, and educational sectors, with recent interest in its application within the field of Digital Humanities.

Since the global economic crisis, cuts in statutory funding in the voluntary sector may seem to only effect non-profit/voluntary organisations on a micro level, but added up and quantified at a macro level, Butler suggests that the voluntary and non-profit sector is struggling to sustain projects already under way, and are put under pressure to establish new tactics to raise funds for the development of new projects. Interestingly, Butler bases his account on the statistics revealed by Voluntary Sector Cuts, a non-profit organisation in the UK, which uses crowdsourcing as a model to gather micro level information from organisations regarding cuts in the voluntary sector, and then generates an overview on a macro level. Thus, the model of crowdsourcing was and still is an obvious option for non-profit and educational organisations to alleviate problems with funding.

Adopting business models in the voluntary sector is nothing new, for example, human resource recruitment, public relations, marketing and funding strategies have all crossed realms between civil society and the market sector, albeit, at times, under a different title. However, Michael Edwards suggests that even though non-profit organisations use business strategies to provide “social and economic services” and charities may adopt “market mechanisms”, the confusion “is partly due to a failure to specify what kind of ‘business’ is being talked about” (28). Therefore, an argument can be made that by adopting the same neologism of “crowdsourcing” from the business sector and using it in civil society runs the risks of being linked with the recent negative debates that have associated crowdsourcing with an exploitation of labour with no protection mechanisms (Fuchs, Dodds, Schoultz, Bulajewski, Graham, Koblin – The Sheep Market).[1]


Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. Image Source: Intellectual Property Brief.

It could be argued that Digital Humanities projects such as Transcribe Bentham, Trove, and now in Ireland, Letters of 1916, may be exposed to the same fundamentals of bad criticism of crowdsourcing in the market sector, by merely using the same term, even though the model is appropriated through a different platform. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, admits that he finds the term crowdsourcing “offensive” as it relates to the term outsourcing, and the concept of cheap labour. Wales adds that the term misrepresents the initiative behind Wikipedia, being goal accomplishment by online communities, and not the extraction of labour (Wales). Another similar project which is based on the attributes of a crowdsourcing model, but receives little mention in the literature is Kero5hin. It was founded as a collaborative discussion forum, where members can submit articles related to technology and culture, and users may vote on whether the article is worthy of being included as site-content (“Some (Random) Facts About Kuro5hin.Org”). Indeed, its founder Rudy Foster is very careful to describe the organisation as a “community” of contributors (qtd. in Boutin). Therefore, it is hard to envisage why digital humanities practitioners have not already addressed the term to suit its purpose within humanities research.

Debates are getting louder – associating crowdsourcing with terms such as labour exploitation, digital slavery and more worrying “comparing it to off-shore digital sweatshops” (Graham). Lukas Biewald, the founder of CrowdFlower, the latest company to be criticised, was quite happy to declare in an interview in 2010 that “we almost trick the game players into doing something useful for the world while playing these games. Just do ten minutes of real work that a real company can use, and we’ll give you a virtual tractor. That way everyone wins” (qtd. in Graham). Moreover, he explained that his company has “a partnership with a company called Samasource, providing work for people in Kenyan refugee camps, where the $2-an-hour rate of pay is far above what the workers could otherwise earn” (Ibid.). Crowdsourcing Humanity?

While there has been efforts made “to establish a credible definition for, and the current state of the art of, crowd-sourcing in the humanities” (Dunn and Hedges 2), nonetheless, time will tell whether there will be fallout, for humanities research projects that apply the model of crowdsourcing and still use the term….



[1] According to Fuchs “We can conclude . . . that social media prosumption is just one form of digital labour which is networked with and connected to other forms of digital labour that together constitute a global ecology of exploitation enabling the existence of digital media ” (269).





Image Source:

Robinson, Jeff. “Jimmy Wales Petitions to Stop Extradition of U.K. Student.” Intellectual Property Brief, 29 June, 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <>

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