Crowdsourcing or crowdsurfing?

Online journalism has revealed a number of new avenues to report, gather information and distribute stories. One technique that has arisen is ‘crowdsourcing’. According to Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review “crowdsourcing, in journalism, is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story. It differs from traditional reporting in that the information collected is gathered not manually, by a reporter or team of reporters, but through some automated agent, such as a website.” The origins of crowdsourcing arguably lie with the Oxford Dictionary. Professor James Murray encouraged people to submit definitions of English words and eventually received 6,000,000 of these submissions. It took 70 years to finish, but was essentially completed due to the tactic of crowdsourcing.

Since the advent of the internet, and consequently online journalism, more recent examples have emerged. The Guardian undertook a crowdsourcing exercise in which they asked readers to scour MP’s expense claims and label them if they were interesting for further investigation. There was a rank on which users had contributed the most number of pages and a bar on how much had been completed. Susan Hetherington (@snoozen) says that this led Michael Anderson to form rules that should dictate crowdsourcing. Namely, they should be fun, launch quickly and have the appropriate servers to support the application. The USGS’s model typifies this. Thousands of online readers have submitted reports on the intensity of earthquakes in specific zip codes, so the organisation could map these events. Easily usable and interactive, this crowdsourcing technique exemplifies how effective the tool can be.

However, if crowdsourcing becomes too much like crowdsurfing, essentially making your audience carry you, the tool is redundant. The New York Times encouraged  “readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight” in the 24,000 of Sarah Palin’s e-mails that were released in 2011. Responses to this included comments like “Don’t you folks get paid to do this work yourself?”, “I’d help out but I need to get a root canal” and “Awesome! The NYT wants non-journalists to do their homework for them!”.  Hetherington debated that the widely negative response to this request was due to the wording of their proposal, that seemed more like a desperate plea for help rather than a mutually beneficial arrangement.

After this event, David Fax was led to create more stringent rules about how to crowdsource effectively. He debated that a publication must know their audience as many people believed that Sarah Palin already received too much media attention. Beyond this, Fax believes that one must know their brand, as the New York Times is supposed to epitomise self sufficiency. Furthermore he contended that crowdsourcing must occur organically, where people believe they are receiving some kind of advantage by aiding a news organisation.

Conclusively, it is obvious that when crowdsourcing one must abide by a variety of guidelines in order to exact the technique successfully. There is a fine balance between crowdsourcing and crowdsurfing and online journalists should make sure not to fall into the latter category.

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