Wednesday, May 20, 2009

They couldn't have done this in 1770 - or could they?

Sheila Scarborough is, among other things, a family travel blogger. I'm connected to her on LinkedIn, and saw her request for suggestions for family-friendly travel sites in Virginia. Noting that she was accepting Facebook submissions, I friended her on Facebook and then submitted my brief suggestion, which she ended up using.

Although I spent a decade growing up in northern Virginia, my suggestion focused on another part of the state:

I heartily recommend Williamsburg. The historic district keeps cars outside of the perimeter and provides a living view of our country before it was a country.

Suggestions from others, submitted via Facebook and Twitter, included a seafood buffet in Virginia Beach, the various monuments in Arlington National Cemetery, and Busch Gardens (just down the road from Williamsburg). See the entire list.

For this post, Scarborough used a technique called "crowdsourcing" - and what better place to get a definition of the term than Here's Jeff Howe's definition - I mean definitions:

I like to use two definitions for crowdsourcing:

The White Paper Version: 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.

The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

(Extra points for using the spelling "soundbyte" when said soundbyte includes a computer reference.)

At first glance, when you concentrate on the availability of the tools, it seems that crowdsourcing is a relatively new phenomenon. While tools are just tools, the connectivity allows someone like Scarborough to easily and quickly contact people that she's never met, and assemble contributions from a dozen of us within the span of a few days. I don't think the Committees of Correspondence in Williamsburg and elsewhere could have assembled views that quickly.

But is crowdsourcing a newly-invented technique? No, notes David Rogers. In a February 2009 post that also mentions Jeff Howe, Rogers traces the history of crowdsourcing back to a time when soundbyte, or even soundbite, wouldn't be considered a real word.

William Safire, cited by David Rogers:

“You ought to take some credit,” Jay Holt wrote in an e-mail message, “for being a pioneer of doing crowdsourcing, even if you did not invent the term. Haven’t you been crowdsourcing since the early days of your language column?”

True; the etymologists of the Phrasedick Brigade have been enriching these columns for three decades.

And how about Herodotus, also cited by David Rogers?

The following custom seems to me the wisest of their institutions next to the one lately praised. They have no physicians, but when a man is ill, they lay him in the public square, and the passers-by come up to him, and if they have ever had his disease themselves or have known any one who has suffered from it, they give him advice, recommending him to do whatever they found good in their own case, or in the case known to them; and no one is allowed to pass the sick man in silence without asking him what his ailment is.

All that is needed is some form of proximity. It's just that the tools that have been developed over the centuries, ranging from mail service to telephones to faxes to online communications, have made it progressively easier to assemble larger crowds.
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