Category Archives: innovation

Online Collective Work ( aka “Crowdsourcing”, “Crowdlabor” )

Unlocking Value in Online Communities


[ Presented at MIT Innovation Lab Meetings, March 19-20, 2009, hosted by Prof. Eric von Hippel ]

Online collective approaches to work is a nascent area of inquiry, but one that is growing in importance. The research presented at the MIT Innovation Lab meetings aimed at contributing to our understanding of this phenomenon by looking at three contrasting cases :  the Gutenberg Project Distributed Proofreaders (self-organized, not paid), Facebook Translations (firm-sponsored, not paid), and the Amazon Mechanical Turk (firm-sponsored, paid).   The study of these cases comprised a survey exploring the motivations of the online communities associated to each.

For much of the last decade, the literature has focused on widely acknowledged self-organized public endeavors such as Linux and Wikipedia. Most recently, however, a growing body of evidence has emerged of successful firm-sponsored private endeavors using online distributed work processes in other industries. Salient examples include Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (crowdlabor), Google’s Image Labeler (crowdcomputing), Facebook’s Translations (crowdtranslations).   This is the focus of my research (Villarroel et al 2007; Villarroel 2008).

As an example, on December 27, 2007, Facebook launched Translations, a crowdsourcing initiative inviting people to join a “community of translators” to make Facebook available to everyone in all languages. This online collective initiative was supported by an online distributed application allowing Facebook users to translate words or phrases from the Facebook platform itself, which other users could vote upon to judge their accuracy. Within four weeks, 1,800 members of the Spanish speaking community had translated Facebook entirely. Within one year, the community had translated the Facebook platform into 100 different languages and dialects, without requiring formal contractual ties to the firm.

Although successful, the approaches to online collective work vary significantly from one case to another, ranging from self-organized to firm-sponsored, collaborative to competitive, unpaid or paid, and differing in implementation according to problem complexity, among other factors.  My ongoing research seeks to develop a taxonomy and study the effectiveness of the different approaches.

Unlocking value in online communitiesMIT Innovation Lab Meeting Presentation