Some ideas quickly seep into the public consciousness so that they seem always to have been around. Yet Crowdsourcing (not to be confused with Crowd Surfing or The Widsom of Crowds) is a new book based on an idea first published in a 2006 Wired article (following in the slipstream of The Long Tail).
The writer Jeff Howe is careful to point out that he is not describing a new concept. He cites a long cultural tradition and Adam Smith's 'the invisible hand' as precedents. Yet the book inevitably draws its examples from the Web 2.0 economy of 'user generated content'.
In summary, it's cheaper, smarter and less risky to involve the crowd in solving problems and in developing products than relying solely on employees. Examples are drawn from the Open Source movement, music and entertainment (American Idol and computer games), and commercial photo sharing (iStockphoto). In this, Howe agrees with Clay Shirky, whose Here Comes Everybody (now out in paperback) has stolen some of the attention away from this book.
Like Shirky, he's an optimist, though corporate suits will find much to be gloomy about (there's a chapter called 'The rise and fall of the firm'). But Howe is at his best describing the failures and false starts, and we learn most from these contradictory case studies. For not every community takes off, and not every vibrant community acquires a viable business model. (He gives us ten tentative rules for community building in the conclusion to this book.)
For there's a 1:9:90 rule of user engagement (called participation inequality by Jakob Nielsen, though he's not cited in this book). For every hundred people on a site, only one will actually create content, another nine will comment on what has been created while the majority will simply lurk. The maths works out for Wikipedia (though a small few create most of the content) and for American Idol, though most communities will struggle to gain critical mass.
There are lessons in this for so-called citizen journalism, though Howe takes a balanced view: 'We are all better served when the crowd complements what journalists do, rather than trying to replicate it.' There are lessons for marketing because co-opting the crowd into research and development creates by this process a ready market for the resulting product (eg Threadless t-shirts).
Lessons for public relations are not made explicit, so I'll suggest them. One is that the crowd is the public, so we should by definition be experts in forging relationships with them. Another is that we need to focus on the quality of these relationships – public engagement in Richard Edelman's phrase – and community building brings many potential benefits. Last (not least), Google is now the key player and so links – the key to PageRank – are themselves a form of community and a benefit of community building.