Interview with Author Jeff Howe

Interview with Author Jeff Howe
TopCoder had a chance recently to talk with Wired
contributing editor Jeff Howe, author of the best-selling
book “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is
Driving the Future of Business” and credited with first
coining the term ‘crowdsourcing’.
Q: What motivates the crowd to participate in a project
or piece of work?
The first thing I’d say is ‘motivations’ is an area in dire
need of more research, but what we know is that while
it varies from project to project, it’s a complex tangle of
all sorts of motivations - money being just one of them
and often not the most important. In fact, some research
has shown that money can act as a dis-incentive in that
if you offered your mother-in-law money for cooking
Thanksgiving dinner, you probably wouldn’t be invited
back. Offering money to people who are using
Mechanical Turk to search for Steve Fossett’s plane wreck
wouldn’t work. There are things that people do online
because they love to do it and they feel that they are
doing the world good. And then there are things that they
do because they want to make a little extra cash, but
they are also doing it for non-monetary reasons.
Karim Lakhani from Harvard Business School did a study
and he asked contributors to an open source software
project if there were 25 hours to a day, what would they
do with their extra hour and 88 percent said they would code.
So, some people just want to do what they do. I certainly
relate to this as a writer, in part it is laborious and can be a
chore, but it’s something I truly love doing, and if I had an
extra hour to work on say, fiction or short stories, I would
probably take it.
And I'm not unusual, I’m not an aberration. I think I’m the
norm. We all have things that we enjoy and it could be
making music, it could be coding. People are passionate about
the products that they have in their lives – I know as parents
whether it be a stroller or even a baby bottle we’re quite
passionate about what’s wrong and what’s right with it
and if we were given an opportunity to redesign it we would
have a lot to say. So, there’s a lot of different reasons that
people participate and if there’s one way I have of summing
it up I have a saying - that passion is the currency of the
21st Century because the one common theme I see is passion
and it could be a passion to practice something you’re good at,
it could be a passion to teach people what you already know, it
could be a passion to make the world a better place but it’s not
that simple ‘carrot and stick’ that we’re used to in a command/control
managerial hierarchy.
Q: We’ve seen the substantial success of crowdsourcing
when applied to more straight-forward tasks. How does
crowdsourcing fare when applied to more difficult problems
like building technologies?
Well, I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t think that there’s any doubt
that crowdsourcing is a model that, at least so far, has worked
best on tasks that cannot be easily confused. I think that there’s
a lot of communication breakdown when you’re asking people to
do things – it’s not so much ‘complexity’ as it is multiple steps.
I feel we can use TopCoder as an example of how to use a
community to create a complex piece of software but a) there’s a
lot of built-in modularity going on in that the software itself has
already been broken down into modules, and b) the process by
which the community codes new work is also broken down into
modules so that at any given time, the crowd is working on a relatively
simple task, and there’s no question that they need TopCoder to be
acting as what in an open source project would be a ‘benevolent
dictator’. Someone needs to be calling the shots saying ‘OK you
guys work on this, OK now there’s a new contest and it’s to test
this winning code to see who can break this winning code’,
- someone needs to be setting these sorts of tasks. It’s not so
much that the crowd can’t perform complex tasks, but it is the case
that someone needs to be running the show; someone needs to
be breaking down the problem. You know, Yochai Benkler writes a
lot about modularity in “The Wealth of Networks" which is far more
a Bible on stuff like this than what I’ve written, (it’s longer and more
theoretical by far), but it’s hard to understate the significance of
modularity in crowdsourcing – simply stated, the tasks need to be
broken down. And there are a couple of reasons for this and one is
that that allows you to communicate them simply. It’s not that
people are stupid, as I say in my book, it’s that they’re busy, and
their lives are already complex. So by breaking it down into
something simple it leaves little room for miscommunication. And
then the second thing, and this is even more important, crowdsourcing
is leveraging what the writer Clay Shirky calls ‘cognitive surplus’, and
what I call in my geeky Wired way ‘spare cycles’. The same way
[email protected] taps into people’s spare cycles on their computer to search
for extraterrestrial life, crowdsourcing projects are leveraging people’s
spare cycles, their cognitive spare cycles – that hour before bedtime, that
15 minutes of a coffee break. So if a task can’t be completed in five to ten
minutes, it’s not that it won’t work in crowdsourcing, it’s just much more of
an onus on contributors - so a lot fewer will participate. I think that we’re
learning though, that that’s not always a bad thing. One model of
crowdsourcing I’m very interested in, and TopCoder exemplifies this, is
what the system theorist Scott Page calls a crowd of models, which
is really just a crowd of experts.
Q: Competition is at the core of TopCoder’s model – is that unique
in the world of crowdsourcing? Does crowdsourcing lend itself to
a competitive model?
I absolutely think it does. I think that TopCoder is fairly unique in that it
was set up from the get go, with the idea of what Ned Gulley at MATLAB
called ‘competitive collaboration’, in that people are competing - Jack’s
(Hughes) initial vision, as I understand it, was like these
baseball cards for coders, which I love. Being a geek, I think it’s totally
great. Look at something even as simple as Google’s Image Labeler,
where people go in and are essentially competing to score points on
tagging photos the same way that other people would tag a photo, so you
get points for building consensus and what do these points translate into?
Absolutely nothing. I mean the points don’t do anything but people like
getting points - this is what crowd-sourcing has revealed about humanity is that peoplelike points. Here’s an off-the-cuff prediction: In the next five to
ten years, we will see in the same way that people have wanted to capture
the kinetic energy produced when people exercise in gyms, on treadmills
or rowing machines for example, they’re going to create online video
games that somehow are accomplishing some simple task. And people
playing the games won’t really notice that they’re actually doing work – the
thing that they’re doing for that video game, whatever the ultimate aim for
the game is, will wind up putting dollars in someone’s pocket.
Q: What indicators have you discovered during the writing of your
book of what the future might hold?
One thing working on this book did not reveal was that there would be a
credit crisis of unprecedented proportion – and that’s just to say that the
more I know about a subject the less willing I am to play prognosticator,
because I think it’s a chump’s game. But I will say there’s no question in
my mind that crowdsourcing, or whatever you want to call it, (I never once
felt that that term is somehow tied to the success of the phenomena itself
– it would have happened without calling it ‘crowdsourcing’) – will only
increase. And that’s because the developments that made it possible,
indeed inevitable, have only begun to make themselves felt. We can call it
the network effect; it’s a network effect on mankind, on humanity. And all
that network effect is just increasing. Broadband penetration is increasing.
Education levels, however slowly, are increasing. The costs of the tools of
production are decreasing; they’re getting better, faster and cheaper. So,
all the contributing factors to crowdsourcing are increasing in strength,
robustness and pervasiveness and more and more labor is going to shift
into this network environment where communities are competing with
corporations or even supplanting them. So that I do know, but how that
shakes out, I’m not so sure. Here’s another thing that we can happily
predict – it’s that a lot of, if not probably most, initial crowdsourcing
ventures will fail. One thing that amazes me is that people will email me
and they say this company is essentially going under so does this mean
the crowdsourcing model doesn’t work? I’m like what, are you crazy? All
we need to know about crowdsourcing is present in Wikipedia, more or
less. Can crowdsourcing work? Wikipedia is your answer. Now, will it work
under every condition? Absolutely not. There are lots of things people
won’t want to do, or people won’t get the incentive structure right. One
thing about crowdsourcing is that it’s really difficult to make it work right.
Look at TopCoder. I mean, TopCoder expended an enormous amount of
energy in the set up process. There was a great deal of patience, years of
patience expended in slowly building a community. TopCoder, frankly, is
one of my models I use when I talk to people – you want to know how to
build a community? Look at what these guys did. They spent years and
they served the community first – what will the community think is fun?
What do our people like to do? Our people like to compete. Our people like
to see who’s the best coder. They like to play games with each other.
There’s a reason that TopCoder has succeeded and you can look at the
inverse of that and say well there’s a reason that a lot of companies have
failed – because they’re not going to put in that kind of time.