Crowdsourcing: Getting Attention is the Key to getting the message out

It’s either ironic or admirably humble that an article in Wikipedia on crowdsourcing contains no reference to Wikipedia itself being one of the largest and most significant crowdsourcing project going on today. The entry itself claims that the word crowdsourcing is derived from ‘crowd’ and ‘outsourcing’ and first coined by Jeff Howe in this Wired article from June, 2006. Neither of them mention the term ‘wisdom of the crowds’ which was used by Francis Galton, a nineteenth century English polymath. He attended a local fair and noted that when other fair goers joined a competition to guess the weight of an ox the mean of the guesses was surprisingly accurate although no individuals were precisely right and some of the experts were really quite wrong.

But this conventional idea that a sample average is taken from a group or of people and assessed by others to formulate public opinion or design marketing programs may no longer have the relevance it once had.

Legacy media, the old style news and broadcasting mediums which are still in existence and still influential, no longer dominate the landscape of public thought in anything like the reach or depth they once did. However, the idea that there is such a thing as public opinion is still there along with the notion that it matters.

“How does the public agenda get set when most of the conversation is bottom up instead of top down?” is the question that Bernardo A. Huberman, Fang Wu both of the Social Computing Lab, HP Laboratories in Palo Alto ( Fang Wu has moved on since the report was written) and Daniel M. Romero from the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University attempted to answer in their paper Crowdsourcing, Attention and Productivity.

Figuring out how and what bubbles to the top of the public agenda is a very important problem. Bernardo says, “Should we decide x,y or z about something? That about something is now getting very confused because grass roots movements though technology can have a huge sway.

“In the United States we have tea party movements and so on that are getting an immense amount of attention internally and externally. But it’s truly something we don’t understand; how is it out of all these chaotic conversations in Twitter, in Facebook, in blogs, in email and so on stuff bubbles all the way to the top? That to me is something that is going to be profound because eventually it’s going to start setting up the public agenda which is what society as a group, a community and an organization pays attention to.”

If you are going to examine the behaviour of crowds and mine their activities and opinions for data then it makes sense to go where the crowds are. Wikipedia, Digg, flickr are obvious contenders for examination as virtually all the material is provided voluntarily by contributors as and when they please with minimal restrictions. Huberman, Wu and Romero eventually settled on Youtube. There is a great deal of activity on the site. In May 2010 Youtube exceeded 2 billion views a day. At certain points it has accounted for about 10% of all traffic on the internet.

In April, 2008 The HP Labs team put together a dataset of almost 10 million videos which had been submitted by nearly 600,000 users. These were weighted accordingly to account for such factors as older videos having a greater amount of views and so on.

For topics to grow or even exist in the first place then content has to be provided. So what would be a major motivating factor to engage the time and effort to create a video? Since at the very basic levels of distribution where there is no financial reward or incentive then we can turn to considering attention as a possible primary driving force. After all why put anything up anywhere on Social Media if you don’t want people to see it?

In studying “the dynamic interplay between productivity and attention” it can be confirmed through experiment and evidence what most of us thought might have been true. “For those contributors who were active for a minimum number of periods, the more views they received in one period, the more videos they uploaded during the following period.” A virtuous cycle was created where the more attention a video received the more inclined the producer of the video was to produce more videos. It wasn’t down to what the contributor thought about their own video. They were motivated to produce more content because other people were giving their previous videos attention.

They also found the opposite to be true. People stopped uploading videos if attention declined relative to previous uploads. Without attention being paid to their product contributors ceased to upload them.

In the conclusion to the paper Bernardo Huberman, Daniel M. Romero and Fang Wu say the following “By analysing a massive data set from YouTube we have shown that the productivity exhibited in crowdsourcing exhibits a strong positive dependence on attention. Conversely, a lack of attention leads to a decrease in the number of videos uploaded and the consequent drop in productivity, which in many cases asymptotes to no uploads whatsoever.”

All this suggests a mechanism for ideas to bubble up through oceans of data and set the public agenda begins with contributors being rewarded by attention being given to their work, the subject of which could be shared beliefs of a political, financial or of any other nature. As more attention becomes centred on these ideas the more motivation the contributors have to create more product along the same lines and thus create more attention and so on.

Instead of an old style news editor sitting in their office deciding what hundreds of thousands of their readers are going to read about or what millions of viewers are going to watch on their televisions we now have random individuals coagulating around an idea and creating content simply because other people are willing to pay attention to it. Instead of the world being presented to us through the filters and ‘judgment’ of a relatively tiny amount of editors and their editorial teams we now have the world being shown to us by content creators who have managed, by whatever means, to bring attention to their work.

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