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Crowdsourcing: The Next Generation


Last year I wrote an article for Nink on crowdsourcing, a popular technique for getting input from anonymous strangers to create product that you can turn around and sell back to them. I wrote about the principles of crowdsourcing and how a number of different communities use them to sell T-shirts, photos, and books.

Even as I wrote that article, the popularity of crowdsourcing was skyrocketing. You have only to look at the popularity of Pinterest, a photo-sharing site, to see how easy it is to engage the community. All you have to do is ask, and the contributions pour in. At least, it certainly looks that way.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. First, you have to ask a question that people are invested in and are interested in answering. Second, you have to have a community so that your contributors have something to feel connected to. And third, you have to give something back.

Let’s look at Pinterest. The “question” there is, “Got a neat picture to share?” And boy, do they— thousands upon thousands of pictures. People treat Pinterest as their virtual scrapbook. The pictures they post are not their own, but instead are things they’ve found interesting on the web. Used to be, you’d tear a picture out of a magazine and share it with your friends over coffee. Now you “pin” it and share it with the world.

The community part comes from common interests such as food, architecture, fashion, travel, and, yes, books. Writers use Pinterest to show off their book covers, post pictures that remind them of characters or settings, and even feature short quotes. The comment feature on Pinterest allows the community to provide feedback and express their opinions to each other. The “give back” part is not only in the author’s responses, but also in continued posting of more material. Readers create categories, such as “Books worth reading” or “Must reads,” and other readers will follow those categories to see what other people in the crowd are interested in. It’s a cheap way to advertise, costing nothing more than pressing a button to “pin” a picture to the page. (Yes, there are concerns about copyright, and I don’t intend to minimize that, but remember, we are talking specifically about the crowd impulse to share here.)

But the purest form of crowdsourcing as revenue, I think, can be seen on Kickstarter ( Kickstarter is a funding forum for creative products—writing, music, art, drama— that launched in April of 2010. You set a funding goal—say $2,500—and create a short video about why you think it would be worthwhile. You set a date by which you’d like to meet that goal.

And then—theoretically—you sit back and wait for the money to pour in. People can pledge however much they want to, a dollar or a hundred thousand dollars. Nobody pays anything until the number of pledges amounts to the stated goal. If the pledges don’t meet the goal by the announced date, no one is out of pocket. If the pledges exceed the goal, the contributors pony up on the agreed-on date and the artist gets more than planned.

You encourage people to contribute by creating incentives. Judith Tarr had a project called Living in Threes, which her publisher couldn’t find a slot for. Her goal was $3,500; she created incentives for people who contributed $5, $10, $25, $100, $250, $500, and $1,000. The contributors, or “backers,” got a copy of the completed e-book, a signed postcard of the cover, an advance look at the cover, a mention in the Acknowledgements, a look at the revision process, or other things, all depending on how much each backer pledged and how much the final total came to (in this case, $6,212).

Laura Anne Gilman had similar projects for short stories for her Casa Nostradamus series and a novella for her Lands Vin series. In each case, her final funding exceeded 110 percent of her goal.

Seth Godin got 4,242 backers for his book The Icarus Deception: Why Make Art? His stated goal was $40,000. The final total was $287,342.00.

It sounds terrific, doesn’t it? Let’s all go on Kickstarter and get rich!

Well, not quite. Not all Kickstarter projects get funded. In 2011, 27,086 projects were proposed on Kickstarter; 11,836 were successfully funded. That’s 46 percent of all projects. But that 46 percent generated   

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