Heads Up, HuffPo! The Mob Is Turning on Crowdsourcing
By John R. Quain
Published March 08, 2011
"Crowdsourcing" powers sites like The Huffington Post and Wikipedia. But not for much longer.
Readers are becoming skeptical, web searches are starting to block them, and now the mob of unpaid folks responsible for much of the work is turning on the hand that fails to feed it, demanding -- shock, horror! -- to be paid.
Originally hyped using marketing buzzwords like "user generated content" and "crowdsourcing," the basic idea was simple: Convince people online to submit free information (reviews, song listings, citizen journalism reports, etc.), and then collect it all and sell it to advertisers and gullible investors. It was catnip to website developers: virtually no capital investment and pure profit.
It sounds too good to be true, but there have been successes. Music information site Gracenote used to get most of its information for free. It's now owned by Sony. Wikipedia put Microsoft's Encarta out of business, and it reduced the Encyclopedia Britannica to a $100-plus a year online subscription service.
And money is pouring into hip destinations like question-and-answer networking site Quora (if you haven't heard of it yet, you will soon). Even AOL got sucked in, recently paying $315 million for one of the most well-known crowdsourced blogs, The Huffington Post. There are scores of others, of course, ranging from content farms like Demand Media and Seed to niche sites like Yahoo Answers, Stackoverflow and Ask.com.
But there are flies buzzing in the crowdsourcing pool.
Readers increasingly regard such sites as notoriously inaccurate, irrelevant and generally suspect. Restaurant reviews in Yelp may be posted by relatives of restaurateurs -- or competitors. Company profiles in Wikipedia may be written by the business' own PR department. And so-called citizen journalists at The Huffington Post may be publishing material that's actually written by marketing pros spinning "news" stories.
Indeed, HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington recently admitted as much, saying that her contributing authors are like those who appear on talk shows simply to promote their own books and movies.
The problem has also caught the attention of the world's search engine, Google. It launched a counterattack last week, changing its algorithm to kill listings from what it determines are content farms or "low-quality" sites. Bad news indeed for crowdsourced news.
An even more threatening groundswell may be underway. Some of the unpaid, unappreciated volunteers supplying all this free content are going on strike. Many have become disillusioned with others taking credit for their work. Some have simply become bored (witness the decline in the number of volunteer editors working on Wikipedia). Still others have begun to resent the fact that their gratis work is lining the pockets of the owners of sites like The Huffington Post.