Crowdsourcing: The Biggest Communications Trend Since the Millennium
Lest we be shortsighted, though, it’s important to note that we are also one decade into the Millennium.
From this perspective, a lot of things have changed.
On the hardware side, for example, cell phones have given way to smartphones, and PCs have given way to netbooks and tablets. Vacuum-tubed TVs are practically extinct, having been replaced by multiple generations of LCD and HDTV screens. The ubiquitous USB memory stick was created at the start of the Millennium, while the far newer smart meters are even now being attached to every home in America.
On the software side, network-based cable TV is slowly giving ground to streaming digital video, and the Internet experience itself is being replaced by mobile applets. And just as important, a wide range of software offerings known collectively as social media have emerged, displacing monolithic offerings from Microsoft and Google among others.
So, what was the biggest communications trend of the Millennium?
It wasn’t social media. To my mind, it was crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing was the birthplace of social media, the applet, the smartphone, USB drive, netbooks – all of these things derive their growth from the Big Bang that was, and remains, crowdsourcing.
I can even tell you when and how the Big Bang started.
It was September 11, 2001.
On that date, Americans became acutely aware that we needed instant information and we were willing to get it from anyone who could provide it first.
While the networks were able to provide video of the World Trade Center attacks from afar, they weren’t able to get in close, and they didn’t know what other structures might be targeted nationwide. Facebook wasn’t around yet, and neither was Twitter or YouTube.
How did we learn of the attacks, and what did we do with that information?
Most Americans heard it on their radios first. As you may recall, the attacks began just as people in New York were getting to work, so the news was everywhere very quickly. Elsewhere people were just getting up or getting ready for their day, so they were able to listen to radio reports and watch on TV, where the networks interrupted every show to broadcast news coverage.
The first thing most people did when they got to work was to check their emails. Those with friends and loved ones in Manhattan were calling furiously on cell phones and land lines, and emailing everyone they knew. (We quickly learned that email and text messaging was more reliable than the telephone in crisis of this proportion.)
A relatively small number of people learned of the events by text message. Many of these messages were sent by first-hand witnesses to the horror.
By mid-day the severity of the attack was well-understood. Flights were grounded, and office workers nationwide were sent home.
That might have been the end of it. Americans might have been satisfied to go home, turn on their TV sets, and mournfully watch the aftermath unfold.
But the attack was so foreign to our experience that we didn’t know how to process it. Was it going to continue? Were there more targets? Was Washington next? How we would go on?
The need for information didn’t diminish. It intensified.
And as we learned more, we immediately realized that we knew far less about our world than we thought we knew.
Nationwide, it was apparent that there was a dearth of understanding about radical Muslim groups, about the tensions between groups in the Middle East.
One of the first places to create a quasi-social media response to the disaster was, ironically, the print and broadcast news media.
Broadcast channels posted citizen videos of the attack and rebroadcast them, frame by frame, with the greatest scrutiny. They called upon their foreign reporters for perspective and insight.
Newspapers published citizen photos for days, even weeks thereafter. They published first-hand accounts of survivors and did in-depth stories about Islamic fundamentalism.
While most major news papers had yet to create an online presence, those that did began delivering discussion boards for readers to contribute their thoughts and ideas. (It could be argued that discussion boards were the real precursors to social media, and from a strictly technical perspective that would be correct. However, as with many other technologies, they needed a world-changing event to make them relevant to a broader audience.)
In an effort to understand, to be helpful, and to learn, Americans took to the Internet in droves. Wikipedia, which was then only a few months old, was a major source of information. The CIA Factbook was also indispensable. People also drew from other newspapers’ URLs, from their own resources, from the Bible, from old college textbooks. The conversation was on.
We learned about Islam, and about the various factions in the Middle East. We learned about front groups that were financing terrorist activities, and their money-laundering trails. We learned about decades of foreign policy that helped formulate the crisis. We learned to our great surprise that such an attack was a public discussion point on Islamic television stations for many months prior.
At that point, we realized that as a nation, our communications infrastructure was far weaker than we realized. There were many, many things that we, as individuals, simply didn’t know.
The discussion boards lit up.
Email traffic lit up.
Instant messaging and text messaging came alive. Conversations were happening day and night, in the workplace as well as at home.
Protective of their enterprises, journalistic organizations kept a thick line between their discussion board activity and their online sites. The concepts of crowdsourcing or citizen journalism were still far off, by their account.
But the floodgate was already wide open. By suppressing it on their sites, the big newspapers merely forced the discussion elsewhere.
AOL, Hotmail and Friendster (the first real social network, founded in 2002) took up the task when they saw that their friend-to-friend messaging systems were now sharing more and more news content and discussion. Americans began disseminating news content using URL links that could be sent via email or IM. From a social media perspective, the flood was well underway.
By opening the floodgates, by crowdsourcing with anyone and everyone, we learned a great deal more than we ever had. Every perspective was valid in its own way, and each contributor had meaningful content to share. Blogging intensified out of a need to elaborate, share photos and charts, and in some cases, take up a more serious role as citizen journalist.
Since 9/11, almost every major news story globally has had a strong crowdsourcing component. It’s also evident in entertainment, in sports, in politics and in business. If there is a major news story in the making, someone is crowdsourcing it, and in short order, many more will be talking about it.
Sometimes the conversations are intense and emotional; sometimes they are deeply philosophical or richly educational.
But one thing was certain: the communications paradigm has forever changed.