Community vs Crowdsourcing

My report on the SXSW session The Era of Crowdsourcing: General Principles, featuring Scott Belsky of Behance and Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Digg.

This session talked about sourcing intelligence from communities vs crowds. The crowd/community or audience/community distinction is something I’ve thought and talked about quite a bit. In the world of “social media,” I don’t think we’ve made the distinction or found it important enough. “Social media” is a marketing term, and much of that thinking has come from marketing professionals who are trying to understand how to do post-broadcast marketing, in a world where media and mindshare are decentralized and diverse, fragmented. In marketing, the coherence of media or communication environments is not an issue, so long as messages can be communicated effectively in a context to drive conversions or purchases. Random drive-by messaging in environments like Twitter and Facebook don’t have to have coherence to work as “social media” in this sense, however I’m more interested in building sustained conversations and collaborations, or “community.”

You can “crowdsource” wherever a crowd is gathered. The crowd itself needn’t be “wise” on the whole; but it’s useful to assemble a crowd that has within it sources of relevant intelligence. What do the members of a crowd have in common? A physical crowd can have no more than proximity, but our sense of the virtual crowd is that they share something more. A crowd that shares only membership at Twitter could be random, but when we crowdsource via Twitter, we’re usually addressing our particular slice of the crowd, which has affinity if only through their relationship to us as individuals, as part of our network.

Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, as a riff on the term “outsourcing.” Crowdsourcing was defined as taking a job traditionally performed by some designated agent, usually an employee or contractor, and assigning it instead to a crowd or collective. Trendwatching defines the term as “customer made.” I found an article at the site that deepens the definition in a business context:

Next year, says Reinier Evers of Amsterdam’s Trendwatching.com, will see the re-emergence of group decision-making power as organisations of all kinds try to harness the wisdom of crowds. But if 2006 was the year in which DIY or home-made internet content triumphed over all its competitors in sites such as YouTube, 2007, says Evers, will see talented amateurs on the net demand payment for the stuff they produce. Expect, he says, more and more user-generated content sites and ventures to move to a paid or revenue-sharing model in the next 12 months. An example of this crowdsourcing is the software company Cambrian House (cambrianhouse.com), which works by inviting huge numbers of people into the production process and then paying them royalties if their contribution makes any money. Even Lego wants its customers to make money. The toy company now lets online visitors (at factory.lego.com) design Lego models and upload them to a gallery to show off their skills. It recently organised a contest in which the winning 10 models were sold as Lego models, with the creators earning 5% of the revenues. The company is keen to expand the initiative.

According to Belsky and Kalmikoff, the crowdsourcing definition needs to evolve, especially beyond the common misconception that crowdsourcing means access only to free labor. They mention three business models:

1) Crowdsource wisdom (or knowledge/expertise/skill), as with Wikipedia.
2) Crowdsource labor, as with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or traditional spec contests.
3) Crowdsource both wisdom and labor, as with Digg or Threadless. Keep the community active in the business.

To the question of crowds vs communities… a crowd is definable through a common purpose or set of emotions. Where crowds are concerned, sourcing exists in sprints.

In communities, intent, beliefs, risks, etc. may be present in common, affecting identity and cohesiveness. Sustainability exists inherently in the organic, adaptive nature of communities. They talked about various risks and the need to ensure the means to have a true collaboration with others and produce a result that’s relevant. One risk that particularly resonated with me: careless engagement – apathy, where one or more participants don’t care enough to withhold something that’s crappy.

Another issue: where money is the sole incentive to perform, you’ll work just as hard as required to reach the monetary goal, and no harder. As Daniel Pink has noted, money is a poor motivator for quality work.

Another risk: wasted neurons, where people spend an inordinate amount of time working on stuff the majority of which is never used. In a managed environment, the role of the manager is partly to ensure the efficiency of effort. In self-organized crowdsourced operations, how do you avoid wrong turns?

Does crowdsourcing foster the emergence of community? Yes, where there’s incentive for conversation and learning, and where there’s real engagement. I think this depends on context and coordination.

Does it really tap collective wisdom? Does it nurture participants? It can benefit reputation, result in building new relationships. The best case is where resources are not wasted, and the terms and facts are crystal clear.

Rethink “marketing”

Dave Peck’s written a blog post where he says his clients are questioning whether they want to use Twitter as part of a social media mix. The arguments he quotes suggest that his clients have an experience similar to the experience we have when we go to a “networking event,” and find that everybody in the room is hoping to sell, and nobody’s looking to buy. Dave asks “can somebody really get clients from Twitter? Is Twitter Overrated and Overhyped?”

A few responses to his post, including mine, make a point I would think is obvious: if you think of Twitter as a platform where you “get clients,” you’ve already stumbled, fallen, can’t get up. I use an old media example that we all still use, the telephone. All companies have telephones, but not all companies do telemarketing. Many people place themselves on a “do not call list” because they specifically do NOT want to be interrupted by sales calls from strangers, and in general telemarketers are regarded as a lower life form. You don’t want that for your company, right? But the telephone is still a valuable tool for authentic voice communication, and it can be business critical even if it’s not about “getting clients.”

If you set up a Twitter or other “social media” account for your company to “get clients,” you’re not understanding the new world of bottom-up personal media. That’s okay, nobody expects you to shift paradigms overnight, it takes a while to sink in – broadcast media is losing mindshare to personal media, what we’ve been calling social media, where everybody can be both producer and consumer, in contexts where they can control we all have increasingly more control over which messages we receive. It’s Darwinian: people are selecting environments where they can exclude or skip interruptions from strangers coming in from outside their preferred focus of attention – i.e. the broadcast television/radio approach doesn’t work, because the captive audience has been liberated by technology.

So much of our thoughts and attitudes about marketing and selling were developed within the context of mass marketing, because that’s where we lived, but it was really a blip in the evolution of media. “Markets are conversations.” In the past, we had real conversations with the people who sold us products and services – this was before the “mass” phase created a sense of abstraction both ways – customers were numbers, and the actual sellers were ghosts somewhere beyond the actual touchpoints, unseen, only imagined. In the future, we’ll have real conversations again, this time mediated by technology. How this scales is still a big question, part of the bigger question of how we reorganize around the robust, data-intensive, increasingly mobile communication technologies we’re evolving in the 21st century.

But you have to rethink the whole client acquisition thing. It’s more like “how can I build and sustain relationships that are relevant to my business (or nonprofit, or cause, etc.)”

Social media for breakfast

Cross-posted from Social Web Strategies:

Peter Kim, who describes himself as a traditional marketing professional, gave an interesting talk at this morning’s Social Media Breakfast. He says at his site that he’s working on an enterprise social technology company, along with Kate Niederhoffer, who was also at the SMB, and my pal Doug Rushkoff, who’s “not from around here.” I’m mulling this over: he says he’s a traditional marketer but he’s helping build a social tech company, so there might be a contradiction here, especially given his talk, wherein he questioned whether social media really works for marketing. Actually, he led by questioning whether negative social media experiences (like fake blogs) had any impact on companies like Wal-Mart and Comcast… it’s not like their stock went south based on blogosphere or videosphere bad buzz. I pointed out, though, that the companies had done far worse without taking a huge hit. It’s a complicated world, and social media makes it even more so.

Another question Kim was asking was whether companies could scale their use of social media so that it could make a difference for them in a positive way, as part of their marketing efforts. Why are companies still spending three million on superbowl ads if social media can be effective? As always happens with new forms of media, at least early on the new doesn’t replace the old, it’s just another way of communicating. I think most of us who’ve been at this for quite a while suspect we’re seeing a revolution, the new converged media will be truly transformative, more and more so over time. I suspect Peter Kim sees that more clearly than he let on.

The talk got me thinking. Social media is complex, it’s niche, it’s political, it involves all sorts of personalities and personal quirks; user generated content requires monitoring or moderation or some kind of oversight, so there’s very real and possibly expensive social overhead. Some companies are jumping in and others are interested, but a social web strategy requires a lot of thought, and perception from new angles, flexing new brain muscles you didn’t know you had as you think your way into it. And you can’t own it in the same way you could own a top-down marketing campaign. In a sense, it owns you, and requires that you be authentic…

My friend Mike Chapman said at one point that “there are no rules. When you try to put rules around it, you break it.”