This article was published on May 23, 2008

Jeff Howe: Crowdsourcing is all about diversity

Jeff Howe: Crowdsourcing is all about diversity
Ernst-Jan Pfauth
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Ernst-Jan Pfauth

Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He a Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He also served as The Next Web’s blog’s first blogger and Editor in Chief, back in 2008. At De Correspondent, Ernst-Jan serves as publisher, fostering the expansion of the platform.

Crowdsourcing is all about diversity. That’s the new message of Jeff Howe, contributing editor at Wired and an absolute hero for all the crowdsourcing experts. His upcoming book, “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business” is getting him some speaking gigs and for some he even has to cross the ocean. I was present at one of these occasions and saw the inspiring man speaking at SocialStrategyTalk, a new Amsterdam-based speakers event about the social web organized by Sogeti and CreativeCrowds. Howe used to show graphs to prove the power of crowdsourcing – “a stock photo used to cost $300, now only $1” -, yet he feels this diminishes the power of people. “The term crowdsourcing is misleading, as it sounds like it’s all about a crowd. But this is not how it works”.

Jeff Howe during SocialStrategyTalkIt seemed like Howe was a little fed up with telling the same story over and over. Also, he probably felt that some people were running away with the definition of crowdsourcing, giving it their own twist. The result was a 45-minute presentation about special people who can be seen as an example for the beauty of crowdsourcing. Howe: “I Love my people”.

Ever since Howe saw the first signs of the phenomenon later called crowdsourcing, it was about real and special people for him. When he was writing about the music industry, Howe was hanging out with some little rock kids, “a mess of bad creativity, but fun”. He noticed an attitude change. Young people used to say “I wanna make movies”, they now say “Let’s make a cool movie”. With the rise of MySpace, kids started creating their own quality content. Then Converse started its DIY campaign, asking consumers to create an ad for the Chuck Taylor brand. This turned out to be a real hit, which got Howe really excited. “It was full in my nostrils, I could feel this was an article“.

When Howe started looking for crowdsourcing examples, he found great people. Like Nick and Jake, two college drop-outs from Chicago who are avid designers and active members of a t-shirt design culture. In 2000, they started an online weekly t-shirt design competition called Threadless. Contestants could win their own shirt, and everybody else in the community would wear it. This community steadily grew and went viral at some point. Now it’s a profitable company selling 90.000 shirts a month. Most important thing: the users still decide which shirt will be printed. The result? They’ve never not sold out a t-shirt. By letting the community members vote, the selection process is fine tuned to perfection.

If the story of Threadless already amazes you, you’d better hold on to yourself. As Howe summed up some more stunning examples of the power of crowdsourcing. Like InnoCentive, an open innovation platform that calls upon it’s members to solve the toughest scientific problems in fields like chemistry, math and physical sciences. If none of Procter & Gamble ‘s 9000 top notch scientists can solve a problem, the multinational turns to InnoCentive. Howe: “Community members are mostly people who have studied something like Chemistry, but are now retired or doing something completely else”. Analysis of the InnoCentive data showed a fascinating trend. The further problems are from a InnoCentive member’s expertise, the more likely he will solve the problem. “Chemists are solving Biology problems and it goes the other way around as well”.

“To solve a tough problem, you need a fresh approach”

“So to solve a tough problem”, Howe said, “You need a fresh approach.” When the English Royal Navy tried to crack the nut of measuring longitude, they organized a competition with a price of 10.000 pounds for the man who could solve the problem. The greatest scientists enrolled, including Newton, yet a cabinet maker found the solution: a watertight clock. Therefore, multidisciplinary people are the bases of crowdsourcing.

Like TJ White, an extraordinary man Howe has interviewed for his book. “He grew up in a little town in Texas, had an unremarkable high-school career and joined the navy. (..) He moved to Colorado to become a gold prospector, but at an age of 30 he woke up at a certain morning, looked out the window and said to himself: I’m a loser”. White moved back to Dallas within a week and started working at Home Depot, hoping to become a millionaire with growth investment. After loosing all his money and half of his new girlfriend’s, he suddenly understood what it was all about. Howe: “White now gets the blue-collar industries, he literary watches them putting holes in the ground. Brokers from Wall Street don’t do that”.

But what if you put White in a Wall Street office? He would probably loose his fresh approach as he becomes one of the Wall Street boys. Same thing goes for the community members of InnoCentive. “By getting them all together, the diversity gets squashed. That’s why crowdsourcing is the antidote to homogenity, as birds of a feather will flock together. Never forget: the solution to a problem isn’t within the same room as you”.