Crowdsourcing: The Good
Other great examples include:
- The Netflix Prize for a 10% improvement on their recommendation engine.
- reCaptcha and their innovative use of the millions of typed words to help digitize old books.
- Foldit invites people to play a game that ultimately results in new protein-folding strategies.
- Microlending companies like Kiva are pooling small amounts of money and loaning it to poor business owners with enouraging results.
Opinions can do well as crowdsourced projects, although I contend people are more likely to supply them when they are bitching rather than raving. Still, reviews and other opinions certainly provide value, and I admit I readily use them when deciding on restaurants, books, and products. Companies like Yelp, Amazon, and Ebay are learning to navigate the intricacies (and legalities) of the relationships between businesses and reviews, making the content even more valuable in the process.
What do all these good examples have in common?
- There is governance. Although anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, all contributors are not equal. A hierarchy of editors ensures that spam and misinformation are quickly weeded out. It’d be nice to think it’s all perfectly democratic, but it’s not, and it wouldn’t work if it were.
- Crowds are used to solve problems or to offer commentary, not to determine strategy or any decide critical business issues.
There’s gray area, of course. Most software developers actively solicit feedback for new features and general improvements. Notice, though, that they rarely promise the most popular suggestion will be implemented. The people responsible for the business strategy are wisely learning that what their customers want isn’t always what they need. They know better than to leave the final decisions to the public. The customer may be good-intentioned, but they just don’t know enough to always be right.
For some excellent crowdsourcing stories and analysis, be sure to read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.
Crowdsourcing: The Bad
Logos. I cringe every time I hear someone brag that they crowdsourced their logo. For one thing I have an intense distaste for doing work on spec. Most logo crowdsourcing sites (as well as contests) do just this — a bunch of designers create a logo for free, getting paid only if the company likes and select it. But logos are critical to the identity of a company. It’s not just a matter of what looks nice on a business card and on a website. Do you really want to entrust this critical piece of your brand to starving artists out there eager to get their hands on your $200? Pay someone what they’re worth and get it done right.
Strategy. No one knows your business as well as you. Get Satisfaction and UserVoice are great for site-based feedback and ideating. Customers and readers make suggestions and vote on their importance, and the companies do with those suggestions what they will. Austin’s own BountyStorm lets companies post questions with a bounty (usually in the $5 – $15 range) for the best idea. Some questions are perfect for this model — creative Valentine’s Day ideas, for example. Some are a bit worrisome — ideas for a first tattoo (Yikes! Isn’t that supposed to be a deeply personal decision?). And some just don’t belong there. There are a ton of people asking for business names, taglines, and marketing strategies. Do they really think they’re going to get what they need from a stranger? For $10?
Crowdsourcing SXSW: The Ugly
And now we come to the issue that drove me to write this post in the first place. Programming at paid conferences should not be crowdsourced. Not even part of it. This will be the 6th year SXSW is letting the general public vote on panels, and the 6th year that attendee complaints have swelled about the quality and selection of that programming. Lots of folks come to town and don’t even bother attending the conference, opting instead for the appropriately crowdsourced BarCamp Austin. Last year at SXSWi some really great panel ideas with excellent panelists never made the cut, while panels presented by often pathetically underprepared heavy hitters filled the schedule. The panel-picker was at least a little easier this year, with the option to vote thumbs up or down rather than assigning a number of stars as a rating.
This approach sounds really good in theory, but what ended up happening last year was would-be panelists filled our Twitter streams with panel pimping promotions and micro-celebrity popularity contests, while many deserving panelists truly working at the cutting edge of our industry were left in the dust. Bloggers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers ready and willing to vote for their panels crowded out those doing interesting, paradigm-changing work. SXSW is too important to the industry to run it as a popularity contest.
I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I have a few ideas that would improve the SXSW experience..
- Make it clear that there is a committee that is ultimately responsible for the programming. Not just 40% of it. All of it. There should be 2 (preferably divergent) experts in each area of content (coding, architecture, marketing, social media, business, etc.). The committee could be nominated by the public, and chosen by SXSW staff. Or nominated by staff and chosen by the public. Continue to accept panel suggestions from the public, but leave the deciding to the committee.
- Create a SXSW advisory group committed to uncovering and featuring new voices and industry trends. Some of the A-Listers are fantastic presenters. I’m in no way saying they shouldn’t be on the schedule. But there are some amazing thinkers doing innovative work right here in Central Texas. Commit to finding them. Ask the public for suggestions of inspiring speakers they’ve seen in other settings and personally encourage them to submit a panel.
What do you think? Is it time for SXSW to change the way they manage programming? How do you think it should be done?