The Wisdom of Crowds: Web Design for Crowdsourcing

Of the many cleverly peculiar turns of phrase attributed to the late Yogi Berra, one of the best known is, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” This ironic wisdom works for physical places, but on the Internet, there’s always room for more, right? Is there anywhere on the Internet that’s “too crowded?”

Our topic today is crowdsourcing. By this time, you’ve probably at least heard of it. Broadly speaking, crowdsourcing is the process of amassing resources, content, ideas, services, or funding by soliciting voluntary contributions, typically through an online medium. As such, it’s one of the phenomena associated with Web 2.0. Pretty much anything can be crowdsourced, from Wikipedia articles and Yelp restaurant reviews to migratory bird tracking, astronomy, and of course, money, either to help launch a commercial enterprise or for charitable purposes. (Crowdsourcing of money is usually termed crowdfunding.)

The Crowdsourcing Advantage

So how can you take advantage of crowdsourcing, and how can you make it work on your website?

First, you should have a need that lends itself to being filled by hordes of random volunteer strangers. It helps if there is an existing community of people who are already passionate about whatever it is. Whether you’re collecting sightings of a certain endangered species of butterfly or fact-checking political campaign speeches, you will most likely find a willing cohort eager to lend their time, energy, and expertise. (If you aren’t already connected with this community, that’s nothing a little SEO can’t solve.)

When you’ve identified your crowdsourcing niche, there are some website design considerations you need to think about:

  • Accountability: To avoid spam and other useless or inappropriate contributions, your contributors should be registered users on your site. They might be anonymous (that is, not required to use their real names), but they should be real people with verifiable email addresses. The WordPress platform lends itself quite nicely to this requirement, with much of the user registration functionality built in or available via plug-in modules.
  • Ease of use: People are more likely to contribute if you make it easy for them to do so. Give them just the controls they need to provide their content (images, video, data, text, etc.), and don’t make them jump through too many hoops. If, for instance, it’s important that they provide a location (going back to the butterfly sighting example), county and state might be sufficient; latitude and longitude to five decimal places is probably asking too much.
  • The fun factor: Perhaps above all else, you need to make it fun, or at least satisfying, for people who contribute. This means giving something back. A butterfly sighting site is going to get few contributions if you don’t provide the contributors with, for example, a map showing the locations of the sightings and how they’ve changed over time. It’s really nice if you can show users how their contributions impacted the overall project, so they can look at it and say, “That one’s mine!”

A word about asking for money: Unless you are already well known in your community of users, you may want to use one of the many crowdfunding services available, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Crowdrise. These sites provide at least the appearance of legitimacy and accountability for your fundraising endeavor; if you go it alone, you risk looking like some kind of fly-by-night outfit with no assurance that you won’t just take the money and run.

So, if you are inspired to do some crowdsourcing for fun and/or profit, talk to your web developer about what you’re after and the best way to make it happen. And if you have more than one crowdsourcing idea, just take Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”