The term “crowdsourcing” was jointly coined in early 2006 by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, two editors at Wired magazine. Howe defined the term thus:

The act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. [9]

Howe’s interest in the idea was partially inspired by the book Wisdom of Crowds , by the New Yorker ’s James Surowiecki. [10] The book explored the concept of “collective intelligence”—the ability of large groups, if their members are sufficiently diverse, independent, and decentralized, to make better decisions or more accurate predictions, on average, than any one member of such a group. [11] One example Surowiecki gave was of a weight-guessing competition at a 1906 country fair in Plymouth, England, where 800 people guessed the weight of an ox. Their answers averaged together fell within a pound of the ox’s true weight. [12] The “crowd” had included farmers, butchers, and others with knowledge of cattle, as well as others with no particular livestock-related expertise. The anecdote illustrated Surowiecki’s main thesis, which was that, “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

Howe’s article, “ The Rise of Crowdsourcing, ” appeared in the June 2006 issue of Wired. He described its applications in the private sector, including research and development at Procter & Gamble and at Boeing. These companies had posted some of their most difficult technical problems online, allowing anyone to try solving them, and offering a reward for the correct answer. They had discovered that doing so was a more cost-effective way to solve problems than paying full-time employees to spend weeks researching a solution they might never find. Howe explained:

Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing. [13]

Citizen journalism. By the time Howe and others began discussing crowdsourcing, there were already a number of ways for readers to interact with, or even contribute to, news outlets. Many websites already provided space for readers to comment on articles or opinion pieces. Some, notably, frequently hosted live webchats with their reporters or with individuals in the news.

Many news outlets also explicitly used reader contributions for their own reports. A dramatic example occurred in London in July 2005, when terrorists attacked the transportation system. Several bombs exploded on buses and subways—and news organizations like the BBC and CNN featured images and video taken by passengers using cell phone cameras, since their own staffs did not have immediate access to the scene. [14] Eyewitnesses filed similar dispatches from Southeast Asia when a tsunami caused widespread destruction there in December 2004, and from the Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. In each case, readers had the dubious luck to be where news crews were not while a major story developed.

Meanwhile, some websites relied almost exclusively on reader contributions, rather than using them simply to augment the work of their own staff. OhMyNews, a Korean website, employed a staff of editors and reporters, but most of its published content consisted of lightly edited stories contributed by 33,000 “citizen reporters.” Registered users of OhMyNews could submit 750 word stories and earn a few dollars per article, depending on its placement. [15] Slashdot, a technology site, was a hybrid blog and bulletin board, to which registered users could post short news items. So-called “hyperlocal” news sites, such as the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, California, published reader-submitted accounts of daily life in their communities, like dispatches from Little League games or photos of Halloween costumes. [16] Summarized Dan Gillmor, blogger and former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News : “It boils down to something simple. Our readers collectively know more than we do.” [17]

Such practices, often collectively described as “citizen journalism,” had generated enthusiasm in some quarters and apprehension in others. At stake, in the minds of its critics, were the standards of rigor and accuracy that characterized professional journalism. Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, expressed uneasiness at the movement’s ethos of not just challenging professionalism but, in Freedman’s view, circumventing it entirely. “However wrapped in idealism,” he wrote on a CBS-TV blog, “citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals.” He continued:

I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain. [18]

Crowdsourcing would add a new and unpredictable element of collaboration to existing models of citizen journalism.


[9] Jeff Howe, “ Crowdsourcing: A Definition. ” [Weblog entry.]

[10] Ibid.

[11] James Surowiecki, Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. xviii.

[12] Ibid. p. xii-xiii.

[13] Jeff Howe, “ The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Wired, June 2006.

[14] Yuki Noguchi, “ Camera Phones Lend Immediacy to Images of Disaster, Washington Post , July 8, 2005.

[15] Christopher M. Schroeder, “ Is This the Future of Journalism?, Newsweek , June 18, 2004.

[16] Mark Glaser, “ The New Voices, Online Journalism Review , October 26, 2004.

[17] Dan Gillmor, “ Here Comes ‘We Media, ’” Columbia Journalism Review , January/February 2003.

[18] Samuel Freedman, “ Outside Voices: Samuel Freedman on the Difference Between the Amateur and the Pro. ” [Weblog entry.] CBS Public Eye, March 31, 2006.