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When Crowdsourcing Goes Wrong

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We “like” so many things online, that we do it almost without thought. In our wake, we leave a long list of self-approved videos and images: my neighbor’s housewarming party, a picture of a friend’s dog and a video for potato chips have all been given the thumbs-up within my Facebook realm. With our ceaseless appetite to approve or deny, companies have begun to look to us for major decisions.

By turning to crowdsourcing, companies take the reins from their qualified staff, allowing the masses to make decisions. This is a loaded methodology that doesn’t always sit well. Last year, when the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to crowdsource a design for a wearable logo, the AIGA — the American professional organization for design — wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, “articulating that developing an identity and a brand is an activity that benefits from expert advice and consultation between a designer and a client.”

Once-exclusive institutions are also jumping into the game. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra thought they hit on a brilliant idea when they decided to let the public choose a new musician to perform with the orchestra. Not only would they discover new talent, they would capture a whole new audience for classical music. The project was a disaster. First, the PSO struggled to offer up 8 of the 20 semifinalists they had projected. Then, once the public narrowed the finalists down to four, the PSO canceled the competition after deciding the remaining contestants weren’t up to snuff.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra overestimated the point to which user-generated curation could create a meaningful result. “[The PSO’s music director] overlooked the fact that those voters don’t have the same stake in the performance as members of the paying audience,” wrote Eric Felton in a Wall Street Journal article about the snafu. “More than a few of the electronic voters seem to have made their choices for reasons not exactly performance-related.” Voters were more likely to select a finalist based on a personal connection, rather than the performer’s talent. “My choice was a student of mine in elementary school,” commented one voter.

One of the major problems with crowdsourcing is that it assumes the voting public has a personal investment, but clicking a thumbs up button is a small gesture when compared to the careful selection of artistic works to be presented, in-person, to a broad audience. It is a major goal for any institution to remain relevant and enticing to the public by developing new means of engagement. But is there a line when some decisions are best left in the hands of professionals?

Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.

4 Featured Comments

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  • uswatsons

    Sylvie Liv from SylvieLiv says: Featured

    It's interesting how with the internet growing so rapidly, suddenly everyone is a "professional" at whatever they want to say they are. You can get all sorts of advice form all sorts of people; weather or not they are actually qualified to make the judgments they make, we can't always be sure.

    3 years ago

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery says: Featured

    I think it's awesome to allow consumers to have a say in the development of a product, rather than just the decision to buy or not to buy. But this being said, advice from the masses should be taken with a grain of salt. Professionals hold their titles for a reason, be it education, experience, or passion. So, like anything, there needs to be a happy medium.

    3 years ago

  • MerCurios

    MerCurios from MerCurios says: Featured

    It makes a lot of sense. The crowd is full of opinions, and each person has their own view of "your" brand and what attracts them to it. For example, some people see MerCurios as edgy & raw, others see it soft and sophisticated. Perhaps we are both, perhaps it's only a matter of opinion... While it is great to try to get your community involved and make them feel like a part of the bigger picture, in the end the big decisions - like brand identity - should be left up to the experts. We can't be all things to all people.

    3 years ago

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth says: Featured

    Totally agree with this article. I ran a fun contest in which my fans were able to choose a unique scent combination for my next soap. I chose the top three and let the fans vote on them. The customer who was able to reach the most friends ended up winning. While this was great advertisement and fun fan participation, the soap isn't necessarily a best seller. Most of the votes came from her friends, who, given an unbiased decision may have chosen a different scent. However, I'll run this contest again because it created participation, which resulted in higher sales during the contest period. So, in short, I believe that crowd sourcing doesn't give a company the most accurate data, but it sure can increase customer involvement and awareness. Perhaps while looking for gold, they've stumbled upon silver?

    3 years ago

  • jmayoriginals

    jean from jmayoriginals says:

    interesting.

    3 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie says:

    Good post! Thanks!

    3 years ago

  • mimiandlu

    Nina Link from mimiandlu says:

    Artists (like the PSO) are caught between two needs: on the one hand, they want (and need) to please the public in order to prosper; on the other hand, they must maintain their artistic integrity, which is rarely achieved by catering to the whims of the polled majority. In the end, I think most decisions in the business and art world are best left to those who have a high stake in the outcome. (Thanks for the great post!)

    3 years ago

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams says:

    In my opinion, absolutely yes...some decisions are better left to professionals. Certainly when it comes to the arts, everyone has an opinion and personal preferences, which is how it should be. However when large numbers of people choose for everyone by voting or liking, often there is not much discrimination in the choices. Of course, even professionals are influenced by their personal viewpoints, but education and/or experience in the field can provide discernment of nuances and details that the rest of us miss. For instance, I see that in something like Dancing with the Stars, where typically the celebrities with the greater fan support will stay in the competition longer than celebs who dance much better but are lesser known or famous...while the judges (usually) see the difference. But I think "crowdsourcing" is here to stay. Most people today want to be involved and have a say about all kinds of things.

    3 years ago

  • uswatsons

    Sylvie Liv from SylvieLiv says: Featured

    It's interesting how with the internet growing so rapidly, suddenly everyone is a "professional" at whatever they want to say they are. You can get all sorts of advice form all sorts of people; weather or not they are actually qualified to make the judgments they make, we can't always be sure.

    3 years ago

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat says:

    I think if you're asked to take a vote on (for instance) which musician should join an orchestra, you should try to make an unbiassed decision. Simply voting for the person you know or the one with the cutest smile is not only ridiculous but also somewhat dishonest.

    3 years ago

  • VoleedeMoineaux

    Hillary De Moineaux from VoleedeMoineaux says:

    That's pretty cool!

    3 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery says:

    I dont think theres anything wrong with asking the opinions of buyers or customers - after all you might hit on something fabulous and new by asking them. But theres always got to be someone to control the rabble!

    3 years ago

  • limestone

    Rocket Ship says:

    "By turning to crowdsourcing, companies take the reins from their qualified staff, allowing the masses to make decisions. This is a loaded methodology that doesn’t always sit well. Last year, when the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to crowdsource a design for a wearable logo, the AIGA — the American professional organization for design — wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, “articulating that developing an identity and a brand is an activity that benefits from expert advice and consultation between a designer and a client.” " This quote rubs me the wrong way. Look at so many failed attempts at rebranding. Gap is a good one. This whole post strikes me as misguided and elitist.

    3 years ago

  • dorothydomingo

    Dorothy Domingo from dorothydomingo says:

    Absolutely, some decisions have to be left to people who have studied and practiced at a profession for years. So much of art is subjective but there is a certain amount of knowledge and skill that has to be developed and cannot be substituted with just "I got a million hits on YouTube". The average person can "like" all they want but what will they actually pay for? Do they want the beginner's work, the knock-off artist or the professional who has spent years honing his craft?

    3 years ago

  • jardinsavage

    jardinsavage from JardinSavage says:

    Interesting article. 'Crowdsourcing' shows up in so many areas these days especially places like YouTube where you end up 'voting' for something just by watching a video. It's organizations like PSO that need to define what they are looking for and the consequences for those choices are. I'm sure that situation left a lot of people upset and put PSO in a not so great light.

    3 years ago

  • TheMillineryShop

    Marcia Lacher from TheMillineryShop says:

    Etsy is a community of do-it-yourselfers pretty much by definition. What our customers and clients think is paramount to what we do.just . Yet there does come a time when we all just have to "leave it to the professionals".. I guess that success has a lot to do with figuring out just when.to do that.

    3 years ago

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery says: Featured

    I think it's awesome to allow consumers to have a say in the development of a product, rather than just the decision to buy or not to buy. But this being said, advice from the masses should be taken with a grain of salt. Professionals hold their titles for a reason, be it education, experience, or passion. So, like anything, there needs to be a happy medium.

    3 years ago

  • TresChicNmodern

    TresChicNmodern from TresChicNmodern says:

    AWESOMEEEEEEEEEEEEE ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)

    3 years ago

  • MerCurios

    MerCurios from MerCurios says: Featured

    It makes a lot of sense. The crowd is full of opinions, and each person has their own view of "your" brand and what attracts them to it. For example, some people see MerCurios as edgy & raw, others see it soft and sophisticated. Perhaps we are both, perhaps it's only a matter of opinion... While it is great to try to get your community involved and make them feel like a part of the bigger picture, in the end the big decisions - like brand identity - should be left up to the experts. We can't be all things to all people.

    3 years ago

  • Musclesandcrafts

    Melanie from merVazi says:

    I think that it is important to ask consumers what they are looking for, but the 'professionals' do need to have the final say. For instance, in music, we don't all have an ear for the right notes, in art, we don't all understand color matching or proper techniques. Even the experts fail sometimes, that's part of life, but to ask opinions of the masses is just as important as getting it right, after all, the masses are the consumers, right?

    3 years ago

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage says:

    Sometimes you fail, but at least they tried. Interesting!

    3 years ago

  • ErikaPrice

    Erika from ErikaPrice says:

    It's great to be involved and to be asked our opinions, but I do think some decisions are most definitely better left to the professionals. We also need to learn from others' mistakes - look what happened to the PSO :)

    3 years ago

  • SeptemberHouse

    Corinne from SeptemberHouse says:

    I'm quite sure that a concert performed by musicians I chose would not be nearly as good as one chosen by the experts. (and sadly, I might not even realize it - that's how unqualified I am!) Some things are better left to the professionals!

    3 years ago

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl says:

    That's a great story. I am not sure if any real decision should be looked to the online public to make. Afterall, we kind of live in our own little world online, which is not the world that a lot of others live in. Look at us here on etsy, how many of us have facebook likes and twitter followers not from true fans of our work that are going to buy it but rather other sellers trying to support one another. Crowdsourcing can be great if you have a big enough pool of people that are from your target audience anyways. But other than that, can just be a mess.

    3 years ago

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering says:

    I never knew companies leaned so much on crowd sourcing. You're right though, a thumbs up isn't everything you need to know!

    3 years ago

  • SilverDrops

    Michael Johnson from SilverDrops says:

    I would never want to hire a co worker through crowd sourcing. Even in a musical field considerations have to be given to that persons ability to work with other people not just their talent. I completely agree with the statement about personal investment. Like many new things in the world crowd sourcing will grow in ways that don't work and in ways that it does.

    3 years ago

  • Judalon

    Jessica says:

    Since crowd-sourcing can be anything from financial to support a project or a way for self-promotion; this lacks obvious definition. In the country where I live a large company that "leases" employees on short-term contracts found themselves in a mess. They asked - online - for people to find a name for their particular category of work. Only the words offered up as suggestions wasn't exactly nice. Most everything suggested slave in one way or another. It ran viral and was shut down in a matter of hours. With the philharmonics. Music does require quite a bit of training. You might be lucky and run into a prodigy but more often than not you won't. Lessons learned: not everything should be crowd sourced. Jobs requiring a very specific skill-set shouldn't be. I have encountered crowd sourcing in financial terms more than anything. If you crowdsource money; all you can do is try and fail.

    3 years ago

  • CarpetShopPrincess

    Katie Koshy from carpetshopprincess says:

    I can understand how crowd sourcing can provide great PR for your business or organization, but when the stakes are so high, it seems silly to leave such a big decision to those with so little invested in the outcome. Perhaps the PSO should have given the crowd a different decision to make like the musical selections for a special performance.

    3 years ago

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth says: Featured

    Totally agree with this article. I ran a fun contest in which my fans were able to choose a unique scent combination for my next soap. I chose the top three and let the fans vote on them. The customer who was able to reach the most friends ended up winning. While this was great advertisement and fun fan participation, the soap isn't necessarily a best seller. Most of the votes came from her friends, who, given an unbiased decision may have chosen a different scent. However, I'll run this contest again because it created participation, which resulted in higher sales during the contest period. So, in short, I believe that crowd sourcing doesn't give a company the most accurate data, but it sure can increase customer involvement and awareness. Perhaps while looking for gold, they've stumbled upon silver?

    3 years ago

  • RetrofitBecky

    Becky from RetrofitStyle says:

    Interesting article and a lot to think about. Thanks so much.

    3 years ago

  • eternalpriestess

    Courtney says:

    From this article I see the one percent are threatened by the oppressed majority having a voice. I have to agree with an above commenter this is a pretty elitist blog post.

    3 years ago

  • PoleStar

    Jennifer Juniper from PoleStar says:

    Definitely not elitist! Recognition of talent and the pay off years of study is not elitist beyond the fact that there may be an "elite" few that have worked so hard to achieve a level of talent. So we should all listen to an orchestra that sounds like crap because little Timmy from our 4th grade class is in it?

    3 years ago

  • iammieCLAYshop

    iammieCLAYshop from iammieCLAYshop says:

    Interesting!

    3 years ago

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 from Parachute425 says:

    Perhaps I'm wrong but I think "the masses" that are voting are 12 year old girls with texting thumbs of steel and too much time to waste. This is how we get our "American Idol".

    3 years ago

  • telepelekids

    ilanit bronstein from telepelekids says:

    I have some problem with all the "reality" shows....

    3 years ago

  • GoldenSpiralDesigns

    Lola Ocian from GoldenSpiralDesigns says:

    It gets even scarier when you learn about how Google analytics uses your information to tailor advertisements to you specifically. We disabled analytics on our desktop at home and now we can't access a major portion of the internet. If you don't agree to let them take note of your activities, it blocks you from using it. Thanks google.

    3 years ago

  • ArtsyFlair

    Michaela Bowles from ArtsyFlair says:

    Great article!

    3 years ago

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom says:

    Maybe having the general public decide on something that major isn't a good idea. It could work in some cases...I don't know though.

    3 years ago

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly says:

    There are DEFINITELY some decisions best left to the professionals!

    3 years ago

  • BookCraft

    Courtney Rae Dydek from BookCraft says:

    Absolutely. Anything involving the choosing of people will always be a popularity contest. In fact that is what crowd sourcing is. When you need to know what is popular right now it is great. But you must keep in mind that people will choose based on value to them, not value to the company crowd sourcing. Knowing a musician in the PSO is far more valuable to a person than the PSO just having good musicians. Also trends must be kept in mind, because what is really popular today, won't be 5 or 10 years down the road. So yeah, if you need to know what is or who is really popular right now it is great. If you need to know what has lasting potential or who has the most talent, stick with professionals.

    3 years ago

  • Krystyna81

    Kristina from Krystyna81 says:

    Can't remember who said it - but anything decided on by Committee will appeal to the most (and sometimes lowest) common denominator.

    3 years ago

  • MishaGirl

    Michelle from MishaGirl says:

    Not everything lends itself to crowd sourcing....too many cooks in the kitchen rarely leads to a great meal. The need for an authority is still vital. That's why people cultivate areas of expertise.

    3 years ago

  • fpierref

    Florita Blake from BeautyAndBrainsGirls says:

    https://www.etsy.com/listing/103288718/interactive-wipe-erase-educational-table

    3 years ago

  • stinnovation

    ST Innovation from stinnovation says:

    ah ah ah, our artical so ineresting, but I think the "Crowdsourcing" not apply to all of the activities, and PSO should be works under public understand and support, some decisions must be left in the hands of professionals, but you must be let public understand or deep clear the professional option.

    3 years ago

  • clairesuzannejones

    May Belater says:

    Is crowd-sourcing the new phrase for 'popularity contest'? If so, I should have thought that an orchestra, often the salvation for the unpopular and more cerebral children, using this method should send shock waves through the classical music community. Let us not forget democracy is two wolves an one lamb. To let me choose anything is often a dangerous premise. I'm consistently unpredictable, may vote on a whim or if I like someones hair, and if I have nothing to lose or gain from the outcome, why should I invest much more thought into it? I suspect I'm in the majority of people who are like this too, but they're probably never going to admit it. Maybe if the vote was only given to supporters of the orchestra it would have been a success, as it stands it's been a good seo exercise for them.

    3 years ago