When Crowdsourcing's Democracy Loses Some Appeal

Garfield Finds the Consequences of Digital Evolution Can Hit Close to Home

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
The light-colored peppered moth is back.

That's because the soot of the industrial revolution, that had blacked the forests of England, has disappeared. Camouflaged once again against tree bark, the light-complected peppered moth thrives. Conversely, the black peppered moth that flourished in the time of Dickens is now as rare as a top hat.

Yes, the poster insect of natural selection demonstrates in black and white why whomsoever adapts to the new circumstances survives, whomsoever cannot does not. It is the story of evolution, and one complaint you never hear about evolution is that it is unfair, or immoral or cruel.

So why is the company called CrowdSPRING.com -- a natural consequence of digital revolution -- so widely reviled? I am myself a customer, and even I intermittently fear and loathe them.

When I was looking for a book cover for "The Chaos Scenario," I posted the design project there, offering $500 to the winner among the (as it turned out) 100-plus members of the site's graphic-design community submitting entries for the gig. This exercise saved me a couple of grand and yielded a very nice book cover. It made the winning designer happier and slightly wealthier. It also shone light on the benefits of crowdsourcing.

In short, everybody was happy -- everybody, that is, but the 100 freelance designers who labored on spec for nothing, and the established designers who never got to bid on the job at any price. Uh oh.

In the book itself, I agonized over my participation in this corner of the digital economy. Was I putting trained designers out of work, and exploiting the desperation of amateurs and professionals forced to work on spec? Or was I giving an opportunity to talented people who had been shut out of the market by an entrenched establishment? I chose to rationalize the positive and to pocket my savings.

Oh, and since then I've done it again for logo projects. Twice.

But now, CrowdSPRING is hitting a little closer to home -- or office -- by outsourcing writing projects under pretty much the same model. Now that my own rate card is in jeopardy, suddenly, the democracy of the internet doesn't seem all that attractive. With this in mind, I dialed up Mike Samson, co-founder of CrowdSPRING, to explain why he isn't a predator -- or worse.

"We truly believe we are not a threat to you," he said, meaning, by the word "you," established professionals with gilded resumes. "So a buyer who wants to come and just get a nice logo for the side of their truck can come to us and get that. But a big company with a more strategic imperative is going to still need to go the established route with the established professionals, the established agencies and design shops."

Oh, yeah? Samson conveniently neglects the pesky law of supply and demand, which dictates that the glut of labor supply for producing the nuts and bolts of those relationships will drive prices down. Period. On the other hand, lower prices benefit both existing buyers and those who had hitherto been priced out of the market. More people will be able to commission writing projects, just as more people have been able to trade up from clip art for their graphic design needs.

Furthermore, the universe of everybody -- when properly cultivated -- will yield more and better stuff than the universe of the few. "The Nike logo was designed by a student for $20," Samson observed. Yep, and the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics. James Agee sold insurance. Alexander Borodin was a chemist. Genius is not the sole province of the guild.

Furtherfurthermore, as marketers and others turn increasingly to community building, crowdsourcing such intimate things as trade dress is the very essence of relationship building. Samson talked about one CrowdSPRING client, Epic Records, which took a Judas Priest tour-poster assignment from its in-house designers and offered it to the crowd.

"They put the word out to the fan clubs and fan sites," Samson said, "and the fans flocked in to participate."

Naturally. But never mind Mike Samson, sympathetic facilitator of Relationship Era marketing. The greater truth comes from Mike Samson, latter-day Charles Darwin. No matter how much economic dislocation takes place, no matter how many job categories are obliterated, no matter how many black peppered moths lose the evolutionary battle to white ones, what CrowdSPRING is springing on us is ...

"The inevitable."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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