Thoughts on Crowdsourced Content

As the millennium was drawing to a close, Richard Stallman wrote a blogpost where he described what he called a “universal encyclopaedia.” He said that the “… World Wide Web has the potential to develop into a universal encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, and a complete library of instructional courses.”

Amongst the many elements of such an encyclopaedia, he hopes that the “… free encyclopedia will not be published in any one place. It will consist of all web pages that cover suitable topics, and have been made suitably available. These pages will be developed in a decentralized manner by thousands of contributors, each independently writing articles and posting them on various web servers. No one organization will be in charge, because such centralization would be incompatible with decentralized progress” and that “… anyone is welcome to write articles for the encyclopedia.”

In many ways, what Stallman describes is a crowdsources and crowd-owned body of knowledge even if the work “crowdsourcing” was only formally defined in by Wired magazine journalist Jeff Howe in mid-2006. He defines it as “… the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals.”

On the 15th of January, 2001, an online, volunteer run encyclopaedia was launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This brought together Stallman’s ideals, Howe’s definition of crowdsourcing along with two other crucial elements – open sourced software that anyone can improve and openly licensed content that anyone can reuse. It is more commonly known as Wikipedia and as it describes it’s scale, as of January 2014, “… Wikipedia includes over 30.6 million freely usable articles in 287 languages that have been written by over 44 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide.”

While there has been much ink spent on debating the accuracy of Wikipedia, a December 2005 survey by Nature magazine found that, on average for a set of 50 articles they compared, there were 2.9 errors per article for Encyclopaedia Britannica versus 3.9 errors per article in Wikipedia.

For the most part, it is safe to say that crowdsourcing has indeed arrived, been validated and here to stay. Given this history, the dramatic rise of people connected to the internet and the inherent human need to express oneself, many organisation – both for profit and otherwise – have sought to take advantage of crowdsourcing.

Some of the most exciting examples of crowdsourced content, however, are projects run by volunteers and not for profit. While Wikipedia crowd-sources text and visual content, a project called Lirivox uses volunteers to help convert books in the public domain to spoken audio that is available, for free, on the Internet and does so in multiple languages from across the world. Many of the public domain books they narrate and record are available on Project Gutenberg where volunteers help transcribe scanned copies of out of copyright books to digital formats.

It isn’t just for leisure where one sees content being crowdsourced. In 2012, Iceland embarked on project that sought to crowdsource a new constitution for the country and engaged over half of citizens of the country. While it finally did not pass in Parliament, it was certainly a first for the legislative process.

There have also been numerous sites that attempt to crowdsource news – some mainstream and some not. For example, CNN-IBN’s award winning Citizen Journalist programs allows viewers of the program to become journalists and submit reports which the channel does air. Similarly, there is Video Volunteers and CGNet Swara that enable marginalised communities to document and tell their own stories through voice and video. WikiNews and NowPublic crowdsource news from across the globe driven mainly by volunteers.

In India, a non-profit publishing house called Pratham Books (Disclaimer: The author is an advisor to Pratham Books) follows a novel publishing model where they openly license their content so that communities can personalise and adapt their books to local needs. For example, books they publish have been translated by volunteers to new languages and volunteers have written entirely new books based on existing material. Other publishers have also attempted to crowdsource illustrations for books they intend to publish.

One concern with crowdsourcing is the quality and veracity of such content since there is no single entity that might take ownership of the output. While this is a genuine concern, as the example of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica shows, with a large enough community of volunteers, problems of quality are much more easily fixed and far more quickly than in traditional models of content creation. As Eric Raymond stated, albeit in the context of crowdsourced software development, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – which is to state that with enough volunteers helping with the crowdsourcing efforts, errors are quickly identified and fixed.

In India, crowdsourcing is only just beginning to reach a stage of growth given that Internet access is growing rapidly. With the linguistic diversity that India has, we can fully expect to see many interesting crowdsourcing models arise especially around languages and the preservation of traditional knowledge such as oral traditions of knowledge. Businesses and organisations in India should look to take advantage of this opportunity but simultaneously be aware that such models work best when they give back to the community of crowdsourcers as much as they receive, if not more.


About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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