Outsourcing the Crowd

Every good story begins with a search on Google…(or at least that’s what Google wants you to think).
Well… at least this one does…

Consider this graph here. It is the Google Trends result for the term “Crowdsourcing”. I deliberately link to the page instead of pasting the picture here, so you can play with the features of this rather powerful analysis tool.

Crowdsourcing means literally “Outsourcing to the crowd”. Whatever is being outsourced does not really matter, but it usually involves problems that are hard to solve or to realize with  small group of people (say…building an online encyclopedia or ) due to a lack of funds, manpower or interest. Usually it’s about constructing knowledge (as in Wikipedia) or analyzing vast amounts of data. More on that later.. perhaps. First though: the facts

Looking at the pictures, you can notice one or two things that are important here:

1. The word did not exist before somewhere halfway 2006

Or at least not in the search history of Google which is, all things considered, quite a good barometer of what happens (or happened) in the online community at a given point in time.  The nice thing here is that you can see the birth of a word (almost) in realtime. Careful: the word, and this is important, NOT the idea itself. Wikipedia started way before (in 2001), as did most early projects we would now call examples of crowdsourcing (there’s a rather long list of them here). The word sprang into existence merely to fill a linguistic gap. But how?

Well..in this case it is rather clear how exactly it came into existence, or rather into public existence: it was first mentioned in an article by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine called The Rise of Crowdsourcing. Hence the peak in the Trends graph around the 14th of June 2006.

2. It took a year for the word to be adopted

By the public at least. You can tell by the jumpstarts in 2007 that the audience was listening, but not yet that interested. Remember, those data are relative to the total search volume (the number of searches on Google at that time on any keyword), a steadily increasing factor through time, so an identical peakheight on a later date means a larger absolute impact (a larger audience). What’s more is that each peak is a bit broader than the one before, as the term lingers on in people’s minds and constructs itself a growing user base.
Meanwhile though, the media were using the word all throughout 2007. If we could zoom in on 2007 (in fact you can, by selecting the year in the upper right corner), you would see a kind of synchronisation with between the peaks and the volume of news produced on crowdsourcing. Which obviously leads to the classical philosophical ‘chicken or the egg’-question. Did the news create the interest, or the interest the news?

3. Old Neologisms Die Hard

Interpreting these data, it’s quite tempting to build a story around it based on what you see. but we have to be careful with that, for everything is relative. And dodgy Google graphs doubly so.

One thing you could do to prove your point, is find a motive. Crowdsourcing is just a smoking gun of a larger trend, so it has to have a background story, the climate in which the word could come into existence as it were. For this example it is of course rather easy, as crowdsourcing is very much linked to the evolution of the interweb (a word which has a very similar history, by the way). More precisely to “Web 2.0” (as in “You’re so Web 2.0!”), a horrible term that has been hyped in the last few years. Sadly enough, nobody can really tell you what Web 2.0 is precisely.  Most so-called experts, when asked, will mumble a bit about ‘increased interaction’, ‘virtual communities’ and so on, but will find it impossible to define.

That makes it a perfect target for, as i prefer to call it, The First Law of cultural hijacking: “If a subject or a word is only vaguely defined, any kind of nonsense or theories can be grafted onto it”. Even if that word wasn’t meant to incorporate those things in the first place. Yes..even science does not escape cultural hijacking. “Quantum-” as a prefix has been misused from the very start (by various New Age groups and alternative medicine practices, mainly. Opening up the possibility of extra dimensions suddenly left some space for the paranomal/mystical). In the case of Web 2.0, anything trendy or catchy on the internet wanted to be part of it, riding on wave of the hype.

Anyway.. the birth of crowdsourcing as a word occured right in the middle of the Web 2.0 hype. As you can see, the trends for Web 2.0 are interesting as well, as the search volume decreasest from 2008 onwards and the new volume lifts off around the same time. People stopped looking up the word, and started writing about it. Coinciding with this moment as well is the ascent of Facebook and Twitter.

And another thing…

Twitter and Facebook are another linguistic story on their own, but not one i will explain here right now, as by now i will probably have bored to death most of my audience (is anyone still there? Hello?).  So by now i should add a note of caution to this tale. (*dramatical chord*)

There is a lot of information that can be extracted from search trends on the internet. Google’s search volume has been used (and still is) to predict and analyze flu outbreaks, social trends, event audiences (try typing ‘Beijing’ and ‘Shanghai’), but we have to keep in mind that the web isn’t always a place where input predicts output. Of course, you can predict patterns (try ‘Christmas’) and extract information on what people like, but analyzing just a few graphs won’t give you the background story.

Our visiting alien biologists, even with access to tools like Google Trends, would have a hard time deciphering our habits and  the patterns in our behaviour and defining the very essence of human society.

If the human kind of aliens, called sociologists, aren’t able figure it out correctly, how could slimy inhabitants of the planet Zorb?