By David Sheets | December 20th, 2010
Technology’s impact on American society the past decade has been tremendous. We can communicate and interact with each other easier than ever — technically speaking. Amid this progress, however, is a heap of new terminology some of us are only now beginning to understand.
The burgeoning list of terms is too long to dwell on here in one post, but elements of that list are poised to become day-to-day jargon during the next decade, and one of them is “crowdsourcing,” a word believed to have appeared first in Wired magazine almost five years ago and now readily on the lips of anyone who spends much time building social networks.
Crowdsourcing amounts to what’s called a portmanteau — two distinct terms blended in form and meaning to create a third. In this case, the words “crowd” and “outsource” were combined to underscore the narrowing gap between amateurs and professionals due to shared, inexpensive technology. Now, thanks largely to the ubiquity of non-wired and portable networks, professionals in assorted fields can solicit answers to problems from whole groups of people at once and maybe tap a collective wisdom not easily discerned by questioning one person at a time.
A form of crowdsourcing has been used to try solving complex math problems, troubleshoot software, edit literature, search for missing persons, monitor international borders and fund a Broadway play. One blogger even tried it to drum up paint color selections for the inside of her mother’s house.
Journalists, too, are warming to the idea of crowdsourcing to help them report the news. As reported in Editor & Publisher, the technique was applied by the Washington Post at the rally by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert last month by having rally participants connect through a beta website to share information. The nonprofit, Minnesota-based MinnPost.com has used crowdsourcing to sift for government fraud, among other things.
Meanwhile, the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer and the online-only ProPublica and St. Louis Beacon are among the news-gathering organizations using something called the Public Insight Network, a sourcing service affiliated with American Public Media that maintains a large network of experts on a variety of subjects.
Of course, two heads, or for that matter 2,000, are not always better than one, what with the potential for inaccuracy or unreliability inherent in an uncontrolled group. Thus comes the distinction between “bounded” crowdsourcing and “unbounded” crowdsourcing. With the first kind, as exemplified by the Public Insight Network, the “crowd” possesses defined boundaries and its members have specific professional skills. The second kind relies mainly on opinion and the emotion of the moment — good for collecting random YouTube videos of a rally at the National Mall, for example.
Crowdsourcing, as a word and an approach to gathering news, gained considerable traction in 2010. Expect to hear it a lot more — and use it a lot more — in 2011.
David Sheets is a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.