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New York Post


Rewrite This Review!

August 24, 2008

By Nicole Gelinas

Wired writer Jeff Howe's "Crowdsourcing" thesis is this: the "experts"—whether they're top-tier physicists or movie-studio heads—don't have a monopoly on the creation or distribution of information anymore. The crowd, through technology that's been available for little more than a decade, has broken that monopoly, transforming everything from entertainment to cancer research.

Howe isn't the first to make this point. But he is one of the first not to frame this truism either apocalyptically or gleefully. He does not claim that reporters will never be paid to write a news article, because someone will always be willing to do it for free, and that bloggers, not the talking TV heads, now set the political conversation. Instead, he illustrates how crowd participation and collective knowledge can transform, not obliterate, professional industry (with some exceptions).

Howe introduces this change with an amusing story about birdwatchers. Until the Internet age, it was the experts who decided whether a bird is extinct or not—and those experts still think they do. A few years ago, the official scientific birdwatchers decided, after much study, that an extinct bird in Mexico was actually not extinct.

But the amateur birdwatchers had long beaten them to this discovery with their own online literature. "The birdwatchers were like, 'That's interesting, but we did that a few years ago,' " one professional ornithologist told Howe.

Actually, this change is nothing new. It just means we've come full circle after "more than a century of a professionalized academy . . . helped obscure the amateur roots of the arts and sciences."

Before the 19th century, it was amateurs—often, but not always, from the aristocracy—who made scientific discoveries, writing to each other to share knowledge through informal societies like "the Invisible College," which later became the Royal Society.

But by the 1800s, universities and their increasingly specialized graduates were jealous of the competition posed by amateurs, and started to shut them out—successfully, until recently, when amateurs in fields ranging from organic chemistry to investigative journalism could once again fairly compete with the pros.

Today, Howe notes, lots of smart, well-rounded people finally have an outlet for all the interests that they cultivated in college or elsewhere but either didn't want to or couldn't earn a living from it. Amateur photographers selling their shots at, for example, proved to be fierce competition to the old-line stock photo companies. Today, only the best or more specialized photographers are insulated from this competition.

In science, an Italian homemaker with a heretofore unused organic chemistry degree can put her talents to use after she puts her kids to bed, helping companies like Procter and Gamble solve problems their own scientists couldn't solve through a venture called InnoCentive. Participating companies pay successful problem-solvers tens of thousands of dollars for their breakthroughs. Video-renter Netflix has a $1 million reward on offer for anyone who can increase a component of its customer-service software by 10 percent.

So does this mean we'll all be out of jobs soon?

Howe's own attempt to harness the crowd for journalism ended in confusion. Leonard Brody, the CEO of, which aggregates photos, videos and some basic print reporting and sells it to the AP and other organizations, says that "what we learned from the experiments with citizen journalism is that people are great at recording what they see . . . but not so great at analysis and horrible at packaging."

Jobs for paid editors and reporters will be different, not non-existent, and it's also opened up opportunity for reporters who aren't part of massive organizations.

For younger people, whom Howe calls "digital natives," the jobs won't be different at all—they already take for granted that media, and most other creative fields, aren't one-way streets.

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, by Jeff Howe (Crown Business)

Original Source:



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