There’s a Reason They Don’t Call It Mobsourcing

An article published today by Michael Masnick on his Techdirt blog takes on a Forbe’s opinion piece that tries to debunk the “myth” of crowdsourcing. The Forbes contributor, Dan Woods, claims that the commonly cited triumphs of crowdsourcing like Wikipedia (the supplier of this definition of crowdsourcing) are in fact the products largely of individuals, not groups.

Masnick’s reaction is basically, “Well, duh!” As he says, “of course there are individuals, and the point of crowdsourcing isn’t that everyone in the crowd is equal, but that they each get to contribute their own special talents, and something better comes out of it.”

The mistake Woods makes in his Forbes piece is in confusing the prolific diversity of crowds with the monolithic single-mindedness of mobs. The one is productive, the other, destructive. Woods’s error is one publishers climbing up the new-media learning curve should strive to avoid.

Although it’s associated with new-media strategies, one could argue that crowdsourcing—the process of looking for the right individual to identify or solve a problem—actually has a time-honored if overlooked place in publishing. Look, for instance, at an article on magazine fact-checking by John McPhee, published earlier this year in The New Yorker (Feb. 9 & 16, 2009—freely available now only in abstract form). As so often with McPhee’s work, this is a beautifully written, entertaining article on an obscure and dry topic. He does not address the probable fact that fact-checkers, like their generalist siblings, proofreaders, are a dying breed. In rare enclaves like The New Yorker they may live on indefinitely, but for the most part, we shall not see their like again. Can we look to crowdsourcing to replace them and their role in publishing? Again, McPhee’s article doesn’t say explicitly, but it offers some hints that the answer may be yes. First, a big part of fact-checking as described by McPhee is a kind of primitive, inefficient form of crowdsourcing. As part of their process, his fact checkers had to make countless phone calls searching for—picking out from the crowd—the rare person who could confirm or deny a particular detail. More interestingly, McPhee notes that his book publishers, who have little or no budget for fact checking, benefit enormously not only from the magazine’s formal fact checking process but also from what he could—but doesn’t—call crowdsourcing:

An almost foolproof backup screen to the magazine-to-book progression is the magazine’s vigilant readership. After an error gets into The New Yorker, heat-seeking missiles rise off the earth and home in on the author, the fact-checker, the editor, and even the shade of the founder. As the checking department summarizes it, ‘no mistakes go unnoticed by readers.’

In its essence, crowdsourcing is not really a new phenomenon for publishers. What’s new is the way that the Internet and related technologies have made the process vastly more speedy and efficient—at least for those willing to embrace the crowd. As they deal with their nosediving revenues, publishers these days are tossing overboard the last vestiges of traditional fact-checkers, copy editors, and proofreaders. It’s not pretty, but it’s probably necessary. The question now is whether they will replace these valuable souls with the wisdom of the crowd or its inevitable alternative: the unruly indifference of the mob.