Crowdsourcing shows the future is now…

I’m always amazed when I see new forms of crowdsourcing and the odd ways that I contribute to it, such as using the CAPTCHA to decipher hard words in English.  Its really amazing to me that we not only live in age where crowdsourcing is possible, but where we are all crowdsourcers in a way.  Crowdsourcing is fascinating to me in that it has rarely been possible in times past (though it has happened as early as the 1700’s) and there is no analogy in nature to crowdsourcing.  When I listed to Luis Von Ahm’s lecture, the closet thing I could think in nature was the ant colony.  Thousands of ants working together with no spoken directions to create large ant mounds with amazing tunnels and labyrinths.  Just to give you an idea of how intricate ant colonies are, I found this video a few months ago where people put molten aluminum in a an ant column and made a metal facsimile of it:

When doing more research on the ant colony, I found that the analogy to crowdsourcing was not exact.  Crowdsourcing  has no hierarchy, while ant colonies are very hierarchical.  Thus, the concept of crowd-sourcing becomes even more enigmatic; How do we collectively accomplish a big task, like translating an entire language, without people managing this process?  This is the truly mind-blowing part of crowdsourcing.  The lack of hierarchy in crowdsourcing has profound implications for industry and education.  This class attests, I think, to the power of crowds to create knowledge.  Increasingly, educators are looking for ways to be facilitators of knowledge and not ‘sages on a stage’.  Corporations have been downsizing middle managers since the 1980’s in favor of work-based teams. Wikipedia contributors have far more influence than ‘experts’ who have advanced degrees and have published peer-reviewed articles on a subject.   We have just begun to see the flattening of hierarchies thanks to the ‘wisdom of the masses’.  I think (guess, hope?) that we are living in a golden age of crowdsourcing based on some key indicators.  It’s very interesting that Time Magazine declared the 2006 person of the year to be ‘you’.  They choose you (ostensibly) because of the explosion of blogs, YouTube videos, and other user-generated content.  Just 2 years eariler, James Suroweicki published a popular book entitled The Wisdom of the Crowds about the power of crowdsourcing knowledge.

So how does crowdsourcing play out in my field?  Librarians, I think, have been early adopters of crowdsourcing.  I think crowdsourcing complements our organizational culture – we believe that information is a public good and not a private commodity.  Listservs have existed since the early 1990’s to discuss best practices in instruction, cataloging, management, etc.  Let’s say I’ve been asked by a professor to teach a session to his/her students on evaluating sources of information.  I want to include some hands-on activities for this class.  I can email one of these listservs, which has 30,000 subscribers, and within a few hours, I will have at least 5-6 librarians who respond with activities that they have done with a class.  I’ve even had librarians offer to contact me with suggestions!

Another way that crowdsourcing has affected what librarians do is through a project called Open Library.  Open Library is part of the non-profit Internet Archive and the mission is “create a web page of every book ever published”.  Currently, there are web pages for over 20 million books.  Some of these contributions are from systems librarians who share all the records from their library catalog.  But more importantly, there are individual editors (mostly non-librarians) who add/edit content.  Like Wikipedia, anyone can sign up for Open Library and begin adding/fixing web pages for various books.  I used Open Library with my part time job to find classic works that are no longer under copyright (copyright in the US ends after 70 years of the death of the author).  For classic works, users can scan them and upload them as a PDF to this site.  I believe there are about 3 million e-books available through Open Library.  OpenLibrary has flattened the hierarchy of libraries – anyone, not just catalogers who speak a language unbeknownst to me, can create and edit book records.  People in remote areas far from libraries holding these classic works are now able to read them.  OpenLibrary and similar projects are helping to democratize knowledge and information.  I can only imagine what the future holds for our field.

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