December 2010

Better search might have yielded and led me to point out that “crowd-serfing” was christened long before this posting. Please see here for the first champagne bottle to hit the boat. Apologies to the author.


When anthropologists, historians, economists, philosophers, political scientists and others reflect on the cultural impact of the tangled web that has been woven into our lives since the dawn of 2.0, will they look at contribution or collaboration as a condition?

Whether it’s contribution, collaboration or even co-creation, the past few years have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of programs and platforms launched to harness the input and ideas of the crowd. But where the open-source approach to software makes obvious the power of collective thought and action for the benefit of users, what is the benefit of corporate programs and platforms created to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can?

Aren’t those just part of a new twist on the old-fashioned contest, one that asks us to open our ideas and opinions rather than just our chocolate bars to see if we hold a golden ticket? If so, contribution, collaboration and co-creation could go down in the history books as little more than a late 20th Century spin on the consumer engagement game of chance.

Or it could go down as something more ominous: crowdserfing.

Recently, Matthew Lincez and I have been wondering about social, economic, power and intellectual property shifts that have occurred as a result of what most people call crowdsourcing. We think that a more accurate descriptor for what’s really going on is what I call crowdserfing.

Crowdserfing refers to how brands entice consumers to provide them with free creative labor and valuable data by harnessing the mythology of the Internet as a democratizing tool for the emancipation of ideas and decentralization of power. It’s a throwback business model steeped in feudalism where brands are kings, consultants are knights and the work generated for their benefit is performed by a digital generation of serfs who find themselves once again at the bottom of a peasant-heavy labor pyramid.

Crowdserfing is not crowdsourcing. When Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired, and his editor, Mark Robinson, first coined the term back in 2006, Howe meant this:

Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.

In describing how companies or institutions can take advantage of the talents, skills, opinions and ideas of anyone and everyone, Howe states that “It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” He’s right. It’s not. There are clear differences between outsourcing and crowdsourcing, the most obvious of which is that the latter is cheaper. At the risk of going all Lou Dobbs on you, we know outsourcing. From customer service to manufacturing, it offers corporations access to cheaper labor. Forget any trickle down savings to consumers, the advantage of having someone in India answer questions about your Internet connection lies squarely with the corporation.

When it first ramped up in the 1980s, a mythology was constructed to help sell outsourcing to those workers who were losing domestic jobs to it. Benefits such as economic efficiency, the development of local markets, cheaper goods for domestic consumers and greater competitive advantage for America were the core of the story. A mythology has been gathered around crowdsourcing, too. It draws on a lexicon that includes collaborative, collective, connective, community, customer-centric, user-generated, social, open, ideas and innovation to sell another fundamental shift in the social and spatial distribution of labor.

Like most of capitalism’s history, the labor (Howe’s “large network”) and the consumer are the same: you. The fundamental shift? You’re not getting paid for your labor. Instead, in lieu of any financial compensation that winners of or contributors to a corporate crowdsourcing platform might receive, you’re being offered shares in social or cultural capital for your labor.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith would not be amused. That a new class of laborers could be indentured into an idea economy with the dream of winning, the thought of being recognized or the thrill of participating seems scarily pre-capitalist. Pierre Bourdieu might be amused. That ‘cool’ could replace cash is pure genius for any brand looking to save costs with a few key go-to-market changes.

By recruiting consumers to do some or all of the design, marketing, branding, naming or CSR activities that once fell under internal job categories, and by framing that doing as social collaboration or competition where peers (read: consumers) amass status for participating (read: working), brands can increase bottom lines and look ‘cooler’ in the process. Cue: the benevolence of feudal royalty. And all hail game theory in action.

Of the brands that draw on the crowd to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can, few, if any, understand that gaming has nothing to do with Xbox. That’s the job of consultants and other knights of the agency realm: bring new and emerging developments in technology and behavior up to the slow and traditional organizations. Of those developments, crowdserfing is arguably most bolstered by the trope of democratization.

The end of the 20th Century was rife with signs, symbols, tools and technologies of democratization: the rise of the DJ, the personal computer, ProTools, Napster, an AOL disc in every magazine, Photoshop, the birth of blogging, TiVo in your hands, streaming video and more. Most of these innovations were – and still are – described by media, scholars and users as increasing the power, choice, voice, reach and production capabilities of consumers. But democratization is not just a trope, it’s also a hope.

For people engaged in voting, naming, inventing or designing, there is often a feeling that their contribution is part of a process that represents a shift in the behavior of the brand; it is, or is becoming, more open, more collaborative and more social. The degree to which that is true or not has to be measured brand by brand, over time and perhaps (and here’s where the real work needs to begin) using some kind of criteria or transparency model that spells out the purpose and procedures of the platform or program. Until then, for many of these platforms, the source remains the serf. Some things to consider in that criteria or model:


Why are consumers being asked to contribute? Is it for fun, for the cool quotient or because its masters truly want to open the gates of determining direction? Has the brand run out of ideas? Or has it become so paralyzed by the requirements of innovation that it has abdicated ideation to its consumers?

Most brands state a purpose on the lead page of their platform, but many do so with their fair share of smoke, mirrors or the fact that the rules of the game have yet to be fully set out. One example of this, and I hesitate to cite Patrick Glinski at the risk of misquoting him, can be found in the space between cause marketing and CSR. According to Patrick, “branded cause competitions are a form of cause marketing, not CSR. In cause marketing it’s corporate first, cause second.”

Patrick sees huge value in how platforms designed to crowdsource ideas for social change “have given a voice to ignored communities, marginalized populations, and scrappy causes.” But he, too, seems to be calling for greater transparency and responsibility in stating the true nature of and reason for the platform.


Every time someone goes to a crowdsourcing platform to contribute an idea, a comment or some similar input, they create an asset for the brand. That asset has value – time another visitor spends reading that could boost ROI on display ads, an idea that might not win today’s competition but could lead to next ideas or actions on the part of the brand. Those assets should be recognized and, arguably, rewarded beyond the cultural capital of participating. Some brands have taken to the “$1 to a charity for every Facebook vote” model. Others could consider something more direct to contributors.


One sign that the brands asking for consumer input might not be behaving so openly, collaboratively and socially are the hidden taxes being levied on the digital serfs doing their work. In addition the clear call-to-action for contribution, collaboration or co-creation, these platforms amass huge databases of members collected by personal relationships and long-tail search benefits that, in the CRM world, are pure money. Some users know this. Most do not. Everyone should. And, like Payment For Services Rendered, perhaps all contributors should be somehow compensated for contributing to the data pot.

Finally, in that funny-but-dead-serious way that stand-up comedy (a precise barometer of the state of any nation and its concerns) has provided a critical lens and a cathartic coping mechanism for Americans whose technical problems with their Internet connections continue to be answered by outsourced workers overseas, what will be the jokes we tell about crowdsourcing in the future? And will we need Russell Peters’ political carte blanche to perform the accents?