MediaPost’s Maryanne Conlin wrote a post today about crowdsourcing, a technique employed by corporations that costs them less than it would to hire outside consultants. By calling on a green blog/mom community to help develop a non-profit project, Conlin claims “When they get passionate about something, they can compete with the best of social media marketers by creating and executing strategies that work to advance their wants and needs.”
But is it ethical?
Usually when we think of crowdsourcing, it’s with an eye towards corporations like Pepsi or McDonald’s, who hold contests for viral content and reward the winners with a prize that is less than the cost of actually getting a development team together.
But news sites like Digg, Reddit, and Wikipedia all run off of the power of its users. The Democratic Party used crowdsourcing to get young people off their butts and voting for the first time. Non-profit media groups to use the technique to both engage audiences and save money, as we found out in a FishbowlNY interview with National Public Radio’s senior strategist for social media, Andy Carvin:
“We are working on a new project called Dollar Politics, and for that we sent a photographer to a Congressional hearing and took panoramic photos of the audience. Then we asked the public to identify lobbyists in the group. Being able to visually identify lobbyists is not something the average person can do, but as you build up a pool of these kind of volunteers, it’s actually kind of amazing what we’re able to do.”
Now, mining Twitter or blogs for information to show on network TV isn’t the same as crowdsourcing, because the people you are getting information from aren’t volunteers. To crowdsource your participants you need a self-selecting group, which makes it a little harder to feel sorry for them for giving content away for free (today’s New York Times‘ decade of photos piece is as good as an example as any). But just like critics complain that bloggers writing at The Huffington Post for free undermines those who are trying to make a living doing so, so does crowdsourcing allow publishers and corporations to profit off of free content.
The hard truth is that there just isn’t the money to go around like there used to be, and jobs like “social media strategists” are created to do exactly this — engage audiences into participating and providing content, free of charge. If the cause is worthy (like Barack Obama’s election) then everyone marvels at the ingenuity of new media development. When giant, faceless companies do it, we complain of them making money off the backs of free labor.
But crowdsourcing cannot be done to people, it requires their active and willing participation. ProPublica.org’s Amanda Michel told us that the citizen journalists viewed their engagement not like a job, but a duty, “For most people who worked with us at [The Huffington Post’s] Off The Bus, it was a hobby much like volunteering time to a pet shelter or a club or their church.”
So far we haven’t seen many attempts at crowdsourcing in news organizations outside of non-profits, and hopefully that trend will continue to stagnate in 2010. After all, it’s easy enough to consider your participation in a project as charity if it’s for a good enough cause, but harder to explain away all the man-hours you just provided to a publication that pays some people, but not others.
Read More: Passion + Engagement = Crowd-sourcing — MediaPost
Previously: New York Times Crowdsources Readers’ Photos For A Decade Of Images, What’s Next In Citizen Journalism: 4 Questions For ProPublica’s Amanda Michel, What’s Next In Citizen Journalism: 4 Questions For NPR’s Andy Carvin