Jeff Howe on Crowdsourcing

Jeff Howe started his career as an art reviewer at the Village voice before moving to Wired and most recently started teaching at Northeastern University. Howe literally wrote the book on crowdsourcing, coining the word and explaining in-depth what crowdsourcing is and what it means for the way we operate in the world.

Howe said the crowdsourcing is essentially the fading of the line between producer and consumer, “enabling the audience to create the media itself.”

Technology is a vital part of crowdsourcing. Particularly, the internet.

“With the internet, we were able to create a virtual crowd,” Howe explains in a promotional video for his book Crowdsourcing. The internet allowed “people to get together through intent, through shared interest” and not just location, Howe explained. This technological advance laid the groundwork for crowdsourcing as we know it today.

On a journalistic level, crowdsourcing is immensely powerful and at the same time slightly threatening, Howe said. The threat is that as the crowd begins to do the work of journalists, there are fewer jobs available for journalists.

Howe said, though, that the benefit outweighs the threats. Using the example of TalkingPointsMemo’s exposure of corruption in the Department of Justice, Howe talked about how crowdsourcing allowed a small blog to beat The New York Times, Washington Post, and all other major media outlets on one of the biggest stories of the year. How’d they do it? Crowdsoucing.

TPM began receiving emails about district attorneys being fired on what seemed like political grounds, posted about these few cases, and then heard from even more readers who saw the same thing happening near them. Eventually, the story blew up and ended up on the front page of all the big papers in the county.

Without crowdsourcing, TalkingPointsMemo would not have known to look for instances of politically-based firings in the Justice Department. While TPM’s writers may have written up the story, its readers created it. After that, when the Department of Justice released all emails related to the district attorneys in question, TPM’s staff was overwhelmed. Thousands of pages of data needed to be checked for foul play, and TPM simply didn’t have the resources to do it. But they had the readers. They released the data publicly to their readers, who pored over it searching for a story. They found it, and TPM beat the mainstream media on a huge story.

This value, Howe said, brings more benefit to the table – both for readers of the news and for journalists – than journalists stand to lose in a world where crowdsourcing allows small outlets like TPM to beat The New York Times to a story.

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