Organizations and individuals have been using the wisdom of the crowds to elicit ideas, promote their vision or push their products forward since the 18th century. Jeff Howe coined the term crowdsourcing in Wired in 2006, defining it in his  blog as “The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.” Wait – what?

While Merriam Webster’s definition is more detailed: “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers”, I’d like to take a minute to look think about Howe’s attempt at a quick and easy definition for an online trend that was gaining traction in more and more areas, but while many think that open source and crowdsourcing are two sides of the same coin, others believe that they are profoundly different. What are these defining differences? Or maybe – open source and crowdsourcing are run by the same principles.


Crowdsourcing is everywhere 

Crowdsourcing projects reach out to a wide range of contributors and audiences. Some of the stand-out projects include Doritos’ ten year run of their “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign, that invited fans to create their Super Bowl add.  Another crowdsourcing campaign that has adventurous snackers talking is Lay’s “Do us a Flavor” campaign, that invites one and all to come up with the next great potato chip flavor. Just to give you a taste, past winners include Cheesy Garlic Bread, and Kettle Cooked Wasabi Ginger. But aside from these commercial campaigns, crowdsourcing principles are also used in ongoing projects that encompass diverse and large communities – a stand-out example is Wikipedia: the subject matter includes…. everything, contribution is by anyone that wants to share knowledge, and audience includes everyone. The Wikipedia community is as vast as the content, and it continues to grow.

All these examples have different audiences, contributors, and outcomes, but they do have one thing in common: the wisdom of the crowds.


Why some people say open source and crowdsourcing are very different 

Mozilla’s recent open design initiative stirred up the crowdsourcing vs. opensource rumblings: The rebranding effort included an open call to the community to provide feedback every step of the way. Sounds a lot like what Merriam-Webster might call “obtaining needed ideas by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community”. But Mozilla was intent on clarifying that this was not a crowdsourcing project: “While we have nothing against either of these approaches … we feel that we will get better results from the call and response of design and review.”

In other words:  Mozilla insisted they weren’t crowdsourcing the design, rather crowdsourcing community input and feedback at different stages of the design process. But Mozilla was intent on the distinction. Why?

Perhaps it’s because crowdsourcing has gotten a bad rep in the open source community.

OSI Board alumnus Simon Phipps’ defined crowdsourcing as “leveraging of the marginal interest and free time of a large group of people to complete a task that otherwise could not be economically completed. The result typically benefits the initiator hugely, without significantly compensating the participants.”

So – while open source is by the community – for the community, some see crowdsourcing as a project “by the crowd, for the man”. Some examples of crowdsourcing do support that. But – you would need to turn a blind eye to many other crowdsourcing projects to accept that definition completely. Crowdsourcing projects run on a spectrum from commercial to cooperative, from consumer-based competitions to non-profit organizations – and some of them benefit a community, not just “the man”.


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Taking the wisdom of the crowds one step ahead

Both in the case of crowdsourcing and of open source, I think we can all agree that having a global community of experts contributing their input to a shared cause is an amazing resource. But successfully leveraging that information might turn out to be quite a challenge: unfortunately, the wisdom of the crowd is not always centralized and is never automatically analyzed, cataloged or searchable.

While Wikipedia is a successful example of leveraging crowdsourcing principles for the community, there is one difference between the content in Wikipedia and other typical crowdsourcing projects: In Wikipedia, the wisdom of the crowd is aggregated, analyzed and searchable when it’s published.

Another example of taking the wisdom of the crowds one step further is the open source community. When members of the community share their feedback on different contributions: fixes, patches, best uses, the open source bazaar is so much easier to navigate.