Many people think evolution is nature being like, “man, what if that dinosaur over there had wings—that’d be totally sweet!” But in the strict definition, evolution is less about creating the “fittest” creature and more about creating the one that is the most efficient in its natural habitat. If the habitat changes, everything that lives there must evolve to adapt to the new environment.

This is basically how crowdsourcing came to be what it is today.

Photo of people gathering during sunset from Pixel.
One or two people within this crowd have the exact skills you’re looking for. Via Pexels

Let’s start with a definition. Crowdsourcing (crowd + outsourcing) is the hiring method in which a task is posted publicly instead of given to a specialist within the company. The goal is to find a better solution—or at least a cheaper one—by reaching out to more people. As Wired’s Jeff Howe eloquently described it in 2010:

“Crowdsourcing is 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.”

Crowdsourcing takes the idea of “two heads are better than one” and combines it with the spirit of competition to push better results. Working in tandem with a medium that reaches an immense number of people quickly and easily, (thank you, Internet) crowdsourcing has grown from a novel and effective way to conduct business, into a force big enough to revolutionize the way all business is conducted.

At the moment the method is primarily utilized by digital industries like design, but it is expanding into new territories every day and continuing to evolve and increase its efficiency. Like a bipedal, hairless ape with a big brain, over the last decade crowdsourcing has spawned a variety of different “species.”

Crowdsourcing before it was called “crowdsourcing”

The term “crowdsourcing” didn’t appear until about 2005, where it’s attributed to Mark Robinson and the aforementioned Jeff Howe. But the practice of crowdsourcing has been around for centuries, likely even longer.

In its primitive form, crowdsourcing took the shape of contests, like the 1714 Longitude Prize, where the British government offered monetary rewards for whomever discovered a way to determine a ship’s longitude at sea. This came on the heels of similar “contests” offered by Spain in 1567 and the Netherlands shortly after.

History is peppered with crowdsourcing ancestors:

  • In 1884, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary published an open call in newspapers for “as many quotations as you can for ordinary words” and for quotations with words that were “rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way.”
Mr. Peanut mascot
  • In 1916, Planters Peanuts offered the first recorded logo crowdsourcing for its now famous Mr. Peanut mascot. The winner was 14-year-old Antonio Gentile, proving the central tenet of crowdsourcing: you never know where the best ideas will come from.
  • Perhaps the most epic crowdsourcing project to date is the now-legendary Sydney Opera House. In 1955, an international design contest was launched across 32 different countries with 233 entries. The winner was Jørn Utzon from Denmark. The iconic and unconventional feat of architecture highlights another powerful advantage of crowdsourcing: when ideas are judged by their merit instead of where they come from, there’s more potential for greatness.

The value of crowdsourcing has always been there; it’s the mechanics that have held it back. But thankfully, at the turn of the century, the world-wide web presented the opportunity to reach the masses on a global scale, and at virtually no cost. Not even the King of England had reach like that.

The internet gave crowdsourcing the opportunity it needed to truly shine. The model is only as good as the amount of people it reaches and so the internet magnifies crowdsourcing’s efficiency ten-fold.

The philosophy of crowdsourcing and its power is best discussed by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds. The book is a love letter to diversity in the workplace—not so much for ethnicity or nationality, but more for different ways of thinking. His theory is that opportunities for improving company performance can come from any employee, and even low-level employees can see things that high-level executives miss.

But what if you took this idea to the next level? What if you reached out to not only your employees, but to an entire pool of specialists who don’t yet have ties to your company? What if you sought out the best ideas not just locally, but globally?

Modern crowdsourcing

By now, crowdsourcing is firmly ingrained in both our societies and our economies. Early turn-of-the-century websites like Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written and edited entirely by its users, and iStockPhotos, a library of royalty-free images also submitted by a community of users, proved that the community-driven model was effective. The rise of social media in the 2000s also gave credence to the idea that groups are more powerful (or effective) than individuals.

GorillaCrowd text
These days there are many crowdsourcing platforms like GorillaCrowd. Seems we’re really beginning to understand that groups are more powerful than individuals.

Early online job listing sites commercialized crowdsourcing and brought it into the realm of business. Sites like Monster.com, Mediabistro and Craigslist Jobs were early adopters of this then-experimental method, and proved crowdsourcing had direct financial gains for employment. These sites were the first to experiment with internet-based job placement, using crowdsourcing to reach out to global communities rather than remaining local like most employment placement methods before them.

The more widely accepted crowdsourcing became, the more a worker could sustain themselves on microlabor. Rather than one typical 9-to-5, workers could now jerry-rig a full-time job income from multiple smaller jobs from different sources. This created a self-perpetuating spiral: more crowdsourcing sites led to more microjobs, which lead to more microjob workers, which necessitated more crowdsourcing sites.

Screenshot from Fiverr.
An advertisement for $5 lawn mowing on Fiverr. Microlabor at its micro-est. Via Fiverr.

This paved the way for the next-level crowdsourcing sites: Fiverr, Upwork, TaskRabbit and of course, 99designs. With different orders of operation and in different industries, what connects these sites is that they all improve upon the classic methods of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is now old enough that we can see its common faults and correct them. For modern crowdsourcing sites to succeed, they need to address its inherent risks, such as confirming participants’ identities, as well as curbing the drawbacks, such as the amount of time it takes to search through hundreds of applicants.

The next generation of crowdsourcing sites addressed these concerns on the front end. For example, the crowdsourced user testing site UserTesting circumvents search hurdles by categorizing its pool of testers: companies have only to select the criteria of their target users and the site does the rest.

As for assessing skills of the prospective hires, platforms like 99designs assigns levels to its community of designers to both verify a designer’s skill and streamline searches for employers. Not only does this allow project managers to more quickly find the level and paygrade they’re looking for, but it also ensures that designers are paid fairly for their skill level. Everybody wins, and when it comes to community-based platforms, keeping everyone happy is the name of the game.

Crowdsourcing in action

Promotional photo from UserTesting.
Current crowdsourcing sites, like UserTesting, make searching the “crowd” easier than ever before. Via UserTesting.

The best way to learn about crowdsourcing is to mingle with the crowd itself. Check out these top 5 crowdsourcing sites to see its effects in action:

  • 99designs — Our own design crowdsourcing community for logos, clothing & merchandise, packaging, site design and more.
  • Upwork — Geared towards freelancers of any profession: accounting, web developers, customer service, sales and marketing and so on.
  • Fiverr — A mixed bag of microlabor: the site started as a means to connect people over small odd jobs (to the tune of five dollars), but blew up into a site rivalling the best job placement agencies. If that doesn’t demonstrate the power and popularity of crowdsourcing, I don’t know what does.
  • UserTesting — Crowdsourced site, app and software testing. Clients can tap into UserTesting’s diverse pool to find testers specific to their needs.
  • Amazon Mechanical Turk — Amazon’s response to Fiverr, with an assortment of odd jobs revolving mainly around editorial and translation work.
How have you seen crowdsourcing change in the past few years? Share your thoughts in the comments section now.