Ming the Mechanic:
Crowdsourcing

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Crowdsourcing2006-07-13 01:11
18 comments
by Flemming Funch

Wired Article by Jeff Howe, who just recently coined the term "crowdsourcing". Essentially it is when you use networks of amateurs who work for little money to create content, do programming, solve problems, or whatever. Which, often and increasingly, is a solution more attractive than going to a traditional well-entrenched professional. Example from the article:
Claudia Menashe needed pictures of sick people. A project director at the National Health Museum in Washington, DC, Menashe was putting together a series of interactive kiosks devoted to potential pandemics like the avian flu. An exhibition designer had created a plan for the kiosk itself, but now Menashe was looking for images to accompany the text. Rather than hire a photographer to take shots of people suffering from the flu, Menashe decided to use preexisting images – stock photography, as it’s known in the publishing industry.

In October 2004, she ran across a stock photo collection by Mark Harmel, a freelance photographer living in Manhattan Beach, California. Harmel, whose wife is a doctor, specializes in images related to the health care industry. “Claudia wanted people sneezing, getting immunized, that sort of thing,” recalls Harmel, a slight, soft-spoken 52-year-old.

The National Health Museum has grand plans to occupy a spot on the National Mall in Washington by 2012, but for now it’s a fledgling institution with little money. “They were on a tight budget, so I charged them my nonprofit rate,” says Harmel, who works out of a cozy but crowded office in the back of the house he shares with his wife and stepson. He offered the museum a generous discount: $100 to $150 per photograph. “That’s about half of what a corporate client would pay,” he says. Menashe was interested in about four shots, so for Harmel, this could be a sale worth $600.

After several weeks of back-and-forth, Menashe emailed Harmel to say that, regretfully, the deal was off. “I discovered a stock photo site called iStockphoto,” she wrote, “which has images at very affordable prices.” That was an understatement. The same day, Menashe licensed 56 pictures through iStockphoto – for about $1 each.

iStockphoto, which grew out of a free image-sharing exchange used by a group of graphic designers, had undercut Harmel by more than 99 percent. How? By creating a marketplace for the work of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers. There are now about 22,000 contributors to the site, which charges between $1 and $5 per basic image. (Very large, high-resolution pictures can cost up to $40.) Unlike professionals, iStockers don’t need to clear $130,000 a year from their photos just to break even; an extra $130 does just fine. “I negotiate my rate all the time,” Harmel says. “But how can I compete with a dollar?”
Wikipedia is an example, for that matter, of how unpaid volunteers can do a possibly better job than a professional staff of editors and experts. Or rent-a-coder, which I'm very familiar with, where you often can get quite extensive programming jobs done for very little. Or iStockPhoto, like he mentions.

It is the free market, and it is a good thing, I think. At least when you're a buyer. When you're a seller, it means you have more competition than you might have liked. As far as I'm concerned, $300 is an outrageous price to pay to use a photo on your website, and I'd never be a buyer of that. I've bought $1 pictures, and that suits me just fine. I've also done projects as a seller on Rent-a-coder, even though I at first thought it was totally impossible, and that it only could work for programmers in China who would work for $1 per week. You just need to be better organized and move faster.

A lot of what you see in markets is that established vendors are trying to hide from you that there are alternatives that give much higher value. Well, earlier there were more technological limitations as well. You couldn't so well do a complicated project with somebody in China without the Internet. You couldn't search huge databases of photographs from thousands of photographers without the net. So you'd settle for one photographer, maybe locally, who could supply your needs. There's no longer a good reason for that.


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18 comments

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