The Death of Crowdsourcing?

Try as you might to ply me with promises of pizza, beer, or a plate of fresh-made veal parmigiana, I'm never going to watch American Idol. But not even I can avoid the headlines, so I know that -- thanks to some 100 million votes -- Kris Allen toppled Adam Lambert in the latest Idol showdown, in what observers and fans say was a massive upset.

Did we just witness the death of crowdsourcing?

This isn't my idea; Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat posed a similar question. Arguing that Lambert was robbed by Allen's legion of thumb-typing fans, Takahashi wondered whether Idol and similar voting-dependent contests need a more perfect, technology-driven polling system. It seems crowds, especially those with no limits on how many times they can vote, aren't nearly as wise as author and former Fool James Surowiecki has famously contended.

I've got mixed feelings about contradicting Surowiecki. We've taken his research to heart here in creating Motley Fool CAPS, a 130,000-strong investment community that tends its stock ratings eerily right.

For example, five-star performer Quality Systems (Nasdaq: QSII  ) was up 47.6% last year, while one-star Palm (Nasdaq: PALM  ) lost just more than half its value. David Gardner's CAPS-informed call on Lehman Brothers shortly before its collapse still ranks as a legendary example of the power of community intelligence here in the halls of Fool HQ. On the whole, CAPS' five-star stocks tend to outperform those earning only one star.

Still, I wonder whether Idol demonstrates how crowdsourced results can become skewed if culled in real time. Fans voted more than 100 million times without restriction. Surely the ballot box was stuffed to some degree.

Now apply this scenario to technology's most popular real-time equivalent: Twitter. I've argued that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) need the microblogger and its real-time search engine. But Twitter, like the Idol voting process, is dominated by the loud minority, and a minority can be wrong. What's more, Twitter doesn't restrict users to one account. (I have three.)

In other words, it's possible for a small group screaming, "The world is flat!" to capture Twitter's otherwise-authoritative zeitgeist, at least for a short period.

Crowdsourcing isn't dead, but it isn't perfect yet. Be careful what you lust after, Google. You too, Microsoft and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) : Twitter may be crowdsourcing at its digital finest right now, but it lacks the safeguards necessary to prevent a similarly-styled Idol moment.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and positions in Apple and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy was sooooooo rooting for Adam.


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  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2009, at 4:47 PM, jbennette wrote:

    I made a similar comment on Dean's blog as well. American Idol is not crowdsourcing or using the wisdom of crowds. The philosophy behind wisdom of crowds is that everyone has the same vote weighting. However for American Idol, voting is a profit center so one person can have a higher vote weighting by the nature that they can vote unlimited times.

    So - crowdsourcing has not failed, American Idol just failed to implement crowdsourcing arguably for good reason.

    The analogy would be to duck tape wings on a Honda and when the car did not fly conclude that it was poor Japanese engineering. The reality was that the car was not made to fly!!

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2009, at 4:47 PM, jbennette wrote:

    I made a similar comment on Dean's blog as well. American Idol is not crowdsourcing or using the wisdom of crowds. The philosophy behind wisdom of crowds is that everyone has the same vote weighting. However for American Idol, voting is a profit center so one person can have a higher vote weighting by the nature that they can vote unlimited times.

    So - crowdsourcing has not failed, American Idol just failed to implement crowdsourcing arguably for good reason.

    The analogy would be to duck tape wings on a Honda and when the car did not fly conclude that it was poor Japanese engineering. The reality was that the car was not made to fly!!

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2009, at 5:05 PM, SarahBlue wrote:

    I look at crowdsourcing being a tool for companies/corporations to do one of the following four things:

    -market prediction

    -product or business innovation

    -research and discovery

    -brand collaboration

    With that in mind, I think American Idol is doing a great job of crowdsourcing. It isn't an objective answer, so it isn't Wisdom of the Crowds, as in, "how many jelly beans are in this jar?" They are crowdsourcing market prediction.

    If you think that American Idol is bascially running their show based on the 1000 True Fans theory (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/1000_true_fan..., they are very successfully crowdsourcing the discovery of those fans.

    Moreover, they've figured out how to monetize their crowdsourced market prediction - by making people pay to text in their votes. They then monetize the shows, through advertising and after, they monetize the post-production, tour and merchandise. In my opinion, brilliant.

    Will I ever think that the winners of American Idol are the best singers the world can find? Definitely no. However, does it matter? You've got a company who's figured out how to make money while figuring out what artist to invest in. After investing in that artist, they know they have a guaranteed number of album sales.

    Could a team of (talented, probably highly musical) executives come up with the same artist to invest in with that level of guaranteed return? Probably not. That is a pretty interesting thought, to me. American Idol isn't about picking the most talented artist, it is about picking the most profitable artist.

    I would say this is the rise of crowdsourcing, not the death of it.

    Sarah Blue

    www.chaordix.com

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