Start screaming “We’re all gonna die!!!!!!”

Something is going down. In the case of the – blackbirds in Arkansas and turtle doves in Italy – quite literally going down.

Is Google Maps plotting the end of days?


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?

In a business culture of innovation, there are some things you should never hear:

Seeing is believing. Who feels it knows it. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Humans love idioms, those catchy little phrases that make the world seem so much more simple than it really is. Like GPS systems programmed through tradition and by consensus rather than through position calculation and by engineers, they cling to sophistries that allow them to navigate their own social and cultural complexities with the confidence that, as long as they agree on having correctly arrived at a destination, the route taken was the correct one.

It wasn’t. Like husbands who refuse to accept the fact that they can’t follow maps while driving, idioms can lead us astray.

Because idioms are collocated words that, over time and like bits of garbage in a dump, stick together until they are fused into one sticky mess, we forget just how originally mismatched they might be. How can seeing be believing? Or feeling be knowing? Or the communicative value of words be subject to a higher currency exchange when trading up for a single picture? They aren’t and they can’t, except for the fact that the sheer span of time over which they have been used and the consensus that language groups amass over that time have made them so.

Idioms, like assumptions, can make an ass out of you and me, especially when they are of the type that require a sharing of an epistemological framework rather than an, arguably, more simple linguistic one. In using them, we run the risk of abdicating our critical faculties to become sociological simpletons.

Here, I’m not ignoring language as the progenitor of epistemology. It is; how we talk about the world helps us make and perceive the world we live in. Instead, I want to raise a contrast with the oldest idiom in the English language: kick the bucket. We all know what it means – die – because we are part of the language group that assembled the word ‘kick’ and ‘bucket’ together to express the end of life. Simple or harmless enough, right?

In combining ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’, however, we give birth to a phraseolexeme of more epic proportions, one that requires us to leap from a combination of things that have been put together to give us a quicker, easier and often more amusing or light-hearted way to capture an idea to a combination of actions, emotions and sensory inputs that, when combined, support certain mythologies of the world that help us ignore or, to conjure Roland Bathes, ex-nominate the complexities of the world around us.

Idioms are an anathema to innovation. They fuse organizations to assumptions, cultural mythologies and fossilized ways of seeing and talking about themselves, their business and, more importantly, their consumers.

Case in point: the consumer research game. Virtually every market research department in every major organization is founded on an idiomatic understanding of consumers. Psychographic caricatures of actual humans, like the Active Mom, have become business idioms used to simplify and, more importantly, agree on the polysemy of what are lived preferences, behaviors, opinions, attitudes and needs rather than PowerPoint descriptions such as, “Mary is a successful real estate agent who struggles to balance taking care of her three kids with her love of pilates and desire to eat healthier breakfast bars.”

Big organizations thrive on small ways of seeing and talking to themselves about the world of consumers. It seems necessary, considering the amount of work to be done, the short windows for socializing ideas internally and the efficiency that is required to transform ideas into products or services via multiple stakeholders, partners, agencies and channels. But it can lead to missed opportunities.

Don’t blame the market research department. They’re just following orders. But the oversimplification does seem to begin there. Whether it’s the result of a lack of fascination with human complexity, a lack of training or experience in decoding that complexity, or simply following age-old work processes, traditional research models, methods and modes of communicating findings from them are one of the reasons why internal innovation initiatives fall flat on their face.

So how can market research departments create better innovation opportunities?


Observations are not insights. There is tactical value to observed behaviors, like watching a consumer have difficulty opening your package, but these can only be applied to refinements or extensions of your product or service. Insights are the result of observation, maybe conversation and an ability to frame data both in the context of the consumer’s experience as well as a theory or theme that helps to explain (and act upon) that experience. Given that believing typically needs to the claim of knowing, it is critical that researchers do more than observe to create their insights and find more creative ways to communicate those insights than show stakeholders what they have observed.


Research personnel love to point out that they know they are not the consumer. They are consumers and they do feel it, but that still doesn’t mean that they know it. Good researchers understand that great research is the result of a calculated balance of subjectivity and objectivity. There is no formula to casting off your assumptions in and beyond the field. Instead, understanding and communicating consumer lives requires a phenomenological approach, some clinical analysis and team of sounding-board collaborators – all of which help you get to know and get you beyond what you think you know.


In this business, we love PowerPoint. But our love of it limits (for those whose presentations suck) and structures (for those who understand how to tell stories in it) our capabilities to communicate our findings and insights. Photos from the field are more subject to this rule than text or charts. A picture might be worth a thousand words to someone who took it and knows the context in which it was taken, but the amount of interpretation that can be read into that picture once it moves beyond the author leaves room for misinterpretation. Photos, like music, are not a universal language. Annotating them with the interpretations, insights, explanations and contexts that give meaning will safeguard them down the line. Incorporating them into scenarios or experience maps will help lock that meaning down even further and provide a more valuable tool for executives, brand managers, designers and other downstream audiences.


Organizations that subscribe to developing products or services only for target consumers run the risk of missing social, behavioral or usage adjacencies that might exist elsewhere. Sure, your focus groups tell you (probably because that’s how you recruited participants in the first place) that so-called Active Moms are a fantastic target for breakfast bars. But if you haven’t had a real breakthrough in the breakfast bar category in years or, for that matter, ever, maybe it’s time to start learning elsewhere. Instead of Mary, consider Mike. “Mike likes to watch late-night UFC fights at home in his Tapout t-shirt and underpants while eating Oreos. He thinks breakfast bars are for sissies.” Trust me, you’ll learn something from Mike that you can use to understand him and maybe even apply to Mary.

No time to write and even less inclination to do so. Maybe time to move to Tumblr just to be one of those wanna-be trend spotting recommenders. First reco? Hungarian wine, dogs, reincarnation and just about any movie with Peter O’Toole. Essential viewing. Amazing storytelling, in total and by characters.

I’ve written before about the vampire zeitgeist. Yesterday I saw Eclipse, the third installment in the Twilight series. Two weeks before that, the new season of True Blood began streaming back into my veins. So I’ll write about it again.

I’m not particularly interested in the near hysteria of pseudo-epic proportions that has legions of tweens, teens, MILFs and gay men swooning over the two big Twi-teams, Edward and Jacob, as well as the third to emerge, Team Emmett. Personally, I’m lobbying for Team Leah.

As an anthropologist, I have the ocular capacity to see the madness behind the motifs. As a father, I have the advantage of seeing through the eyes of a tween daughter and her MILF mom. And because the story makes so much sense for our time, I’m down with it. As such, I flat out dismiss the critical shortcomings of wanna-be snobs-cum-pundits who are unable to see beyond dialogue and pacing that is muddied by the swirling eddies of testosterone.

Which leads me to what I do want to write about – the vampire connection not to testosterone but to why inhibiting cGMP specific phosphodiesterase type 5 has become such a big business. I have no idea how big a business Viagra is. No pun intended or, for my IC colleagues, TW – it’s big. Very big. So is Cialis, Levitra or, for that matter, the entire suite of products (boner related or not) in the global pharmaceutical industry.

That many of us mere mortals thirst to live longer, stronger and harder is a given; that pharmaceutical companies can better understand our craving and their business by empathizing with and appreciating the vampire zeitgeist should be. So where is the alignment?

Well, for one, it’s in the risk-and-decision factor. Like Bella, some people – the people that people in business like to call ‘consumers’ – have made the decision to alter their bodies and beings. Temporary or permanent is beside the point, and it’s not a decision for everyone. I know a certain EVP who wouldn’t swallow a pill, any pill, if you coated it in black cod and kale.

But for those who will, pharma companies could learn a lot from the cognitive and cultural connections between the sexual prowess of the vampire and the Viagra consumer, the decisions over mortalities and medicines. Like other versions of human performance that today’s pharma products promise to enhance, it is a key to today’s consumer decision-making.

Given the other decision-making that’s going on in millions of heads right now – vampire, werewolf or neither – that connection should be guiding future marketing and branding efforts of the pharma giants. Those in the pharma C-suite who fail to see that connection are missing big opportunities still in the works.

No need for the usual archaeological implements – the relics are plainly visible to the naked eye in Montreal hotels. Years of non-smoking regulations have yet to catch up with the maintenance men of interior design.