Crowdsourcing from its beginnings to the present

evolution of crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has its origins in the early 21st century. Wrong! You don’t believe it? We did some research regarding the beginnings of crowdsourcing and came across some fascinating information, which we want to share with you.


A glance at history

18th century – Longitudes and soda

The origins of crowdsourcing can be traced back to the 18th century. In 1714, the British government invited tenders for the “Longitude Prize.” This prize was endowed with 20,000 Pounds and was to be awarded to someone who could develop a reliable method of calculating the longitude of a vessel while at sea.

In 1783, the French king, Louis XVI, awarded a prize for the production of pure soda, which is also known as sodium carbonate.

Finding solutions to both problems was therefore not assigned to experts, instead, the crowd was given the task. The Longitude Prize went to John Harrison, a clockmaker, who calculated the longitude with the help of very accurate watches. The soda problem was solved by Nicolas Leblanc.

19th century – Oxford English Dictionary

In the 19th century, several extremely smart people called for a re-examination of the entire English language. This was the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. No, not quite the birth – they were not yet ready to go into labor yet. Individuals could not carry out a project of this magnitude. In 1879, on the spur of the moment, the philosopher James Murray asked his English-speaking readers to send him references to everyday and unusual words. His request met with a huge positive response. The Oxford English Dictionary is therefore the first project in which a task was outsourced to a crowd – crowdsourcing in the truest sense of the word.

20th century – Three examples of crowdsourcing projects in the analogue era

  • In 1919, Planters Peanuts started a design contest to develop their logo.
  • In 1979, Tim and Nina Zagat established the “Zagat Restaurant Guide” for which they initially used the ratings given by their friends and later a larger community.
  • 1981 marked the publication of the third “Lonely Planet” travel guide. Travellers provided this guide with tips and tricks and corrected information relevant to the destination.

However, crowdsourcing only experienced a boom with the development of Web 2.0 – the Internet form that permitted an interaction between users.

Crowdsourcing in the age of Web 2.0

First attempts: from Interpedia to Nupedia and Wikipedia

One of the first crowdsourcing projects of Web 2.0 and one of its most popular is the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is probably based on an idea by the Internet pioneer, Rick Gates, who presented the idea of an encyclopedia in the World Wide Web to a Usenet newsgroup in 1993. However, the Interpedia project never got any further than the planning stage. Inspired by Richard Stallman in 1999, GNUPedia, did not make it either.

It ultimately became a “fun project.”

logo Nupedia

Nupedia logo (source: Wikipedia)

Nupedia was founded in March 2000. It was an attempt by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger to create an English-language Internet encyclopedia. However, the creation of articles was conducted as customary to date. Authors applied. Their texts went through a peer review process and there was a chief editor.
But, towards the end of 2000 and the beginning of 2001, Sanger and Wales got wind of the Wiki system. This system permitted users to read websites as well as, unusual at the time, make changes to them directly in the browser.

„On January 15, 2001, Nupedia’s Wiki was launched on its own domain at This is considered the birth of Wikipedia.“
„Wikipedia“,, 26.03.2018.

logo Wikipedia

current Wikipedia logo (source: Wikipedia)

Originally, Wikipedia was a “fun side-project” launched by Sanger. But the crowdsourcing project soon became the most important reference book for western culture.

So much for our outing in the history of crowdsourcing. However, before we take a look at current developments, let’s take a closer look at the term.


The term crowdsourcing

Jeff How first coined the term crowdsourcing in 2006. He wrote the following in the June 2006 issue of the magazine “Wired”:

“Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labour isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.”


Crowdsourcing today

Types of crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing can be used in many areas. To better differentiate, crowdsourcing is today divided into the following six main types:

  1. Collective Knowledge
    Crowd collects knowledge, organizes and filters it
    Example: Wikipedia
  2. Microworking
    Mini tasks including tagging, text creation or testing software are realized by the crowd
    Example: clickworker
  3. Creative content marketplaces
    Creative tasks (usually in the area of design) are contracted out to the crowd
    Example: 99designs
  4. Open Innovation and Ideas
    Innovation processes are developed together with the crowd via brainstorming or similar methods
    Example: InnoCentive
  5. Crowd funding
    The crowd is involved in project funding
    Example: KICKSTARTER
  6. Engagement & Charity
    Non-profit projects are realized with the help of the crowd, for instance by means of fundraising

This is why crowdsourcing is so attractive

Financial burden is minimized

The financial effort of a project such as the Oxford English Dictionary mentioned earlier would be enormous without the help of the crowd. Authors would have to be hired, work spaces rented and an infrastructure would have to be provided. Costs are significantly lower if a crowd can manage to put together a dictionary. The same applies to software tests. A single individual would never have the amount of hardware configurations found in a crowd.

Time saving

It goes without saying that a larger number of people are more likely to solve a task than just a few employees. For instance, creating a glossary for your homepage is quickly and easily accomplished with microworking.

An event carried out by Oxford University in 2009 demonstrates the amount of time saved by using crowdsourcing. Employees selected a crowdsourcing approach for their Galaxy Zoo Project, which involved the mapping of a galaxy. With the help of the public, the task was solved within just four months. It would have taken the university two years if it had had to handle the task on its own.

Storage of knowledge & experience

The more people work on a project, the larger the accumulated amount of knowledge and experience. A very powerful tool is formed when knowledge and experience are correctly channeled.

Solutions outside of the box

“A new broom sweeps clean” because it is not stuck in a rut. In the crowd you have many “new brooms” at your disposal. Solutions are developed that clearly go beyond the edge of one’s own plate.

Increasing prominence

A well-placed crowdsourcing project increases its prominence. You can for instance arouse curiosity about the product while it is being developed, which in turn increases its sales opportunities.

Market research included

In the same way crowdsourcing increases the brand awareness of a product, it also increases product feedback. You can for instance test market acceptance at a very early stage of development and/or acquire information about your target group.


Why convince a bank that you have a great idea? Convince the crowd instead! If they give you the money needed to realize your project they are securing more than just the funding. You also know that your idea has general resonance and that many people find it convincing.

Current developments thanks to crowdsourcing

1. Consumers become prosumers

Consumers used to obediently accept whatever products and services a company provided, and would sometimes write a letter of praise or send in a complaint – this has changed. Consumers have become prosumers – thanks to crowdsourcing. Prosumers actively contribute their needs and wishes during the development phase of the product.

For instance, if an item is ready to be further developed, many manufacturers use the product ratings and reviews of their current product on Amazon, where they often find many suggestions for changes and improvements.

2. Work processes are being decentralized

Thanks to digital platforms, work processes do not necessarily have to be centrally managed and controlled from above. The crowd can form its own network and organize the processes internally.

3. Transparency is increased

Bad products and poor services that endure on the market? Feedback from the crowd soon draws attention to their shortcomings. It helps users and at the same time provides companies with suggestions for improvements.

Furthermore, it improves the interaction between consumers, prosumers and companies. The company’s transparency towards the consumer increases. This generally occurs due to the fact that most companies and institutions do not want to appear to be concealing something.

4. Work and lifeworlds merge

Crowdsourcing changes the modern work environment. Laptops, tablets and smartphones enable extreme work mobility. In addition, cloud services make device-independent access to data possible. People are therefore more willing to complete tasks from home or on the go.

Furthermore, users get involved in unpaid work processes and are very committed. Game developers, for instance, provide pre-versions on platforms like Steam. Gamers even pay for these unfinished products and then provide the developers with feedback. In doing so, bugs can be eliminated, game balancing can be improved and suggestions can be accepted while the game is being developed.

Crowdsourcing reduces the number of typical nine to five jobs. Work and personal life tend to merge ever more closely.

5. Highly specialized experts

In the crowd, experts specialize themselves even further because they only devote themselves to one subject. Often, this is not possible in traditional company structures; an absolute Excel expert will have to work with Word templates or tidy up a hard drive every once in a while. In the crowd, the Excel expert can search for and find the tasks that match his expertise. The specialist therefore expands his skills.

Moreover, for crowdsourcing, tasks are often divided into numerous partial tasks. Highly specialized experts can easily develop in these niches. The companies therefore save money and time because, based on their knowledge and experience, the specialists work very quickly – while producing high quality results.


Our summary

The development of crowdsourcing is directly connected to our working and living environment. Companies and employees can benefit from this development in many ways. There is no prospect of an end to the growth of crowdsourcing. We are eager to learn more about how technological and social developments will influence crowdsourcing in the future, and what kind of new areas of application will emerge.