When Crowdsourcing is Not Democracy

A response to “Democratizing ICT4D with DIY Innovation and Open Data”

In the digital era, it’s easier to conflate participation with democracy. This is a dangerous and unfortunate trend as it degrades the very concept of what a democracy can and should be: a transparent, participatory, and accountable means of representative governance.

Voting itself doesn’t necessarily mean a democracy. For the past many decades, democracy has in many countries around the world, and often due to American foreign policy, been defined as simply having elections. In the best circumstances, as having “free and fair” elections specifically. People are bribed, and have had their lives threatened, to vote at the polls.

Crowdsourcing also doesn’t necessarily mean a democracy. Craig Newmark was recently quoted by Patrick Meier at the recent NetImpact Conference:

“Another word for #democracy is #crowdsourcing

I often disagree with Craig and it was unfortunate to see buzz circulate around such an off the cuff statement. It’s my experience that lackluster crowdsourcing initiatives actually do the opposite, they degrade the very definition of democracy. Many of the people that I’ve encountered and/or worked with overseas and in the USA are upset with the countless surveys and other “crowdsourcing” projects that occur where things are taken from a target community that rarely, if ever, encounters the positive results from said work or study. When communities encounter this type of crowdsourcing fatigue, they are less likely to participate as effectively in the future. It’s like calling 9-1-1 and not receiving any response.

In an online discussion that occurred around Craig’s quote, Katrin Verclas stated that there is “no implicit moral positive value in #crowdsourcing.” I agree and even stress that “crowds” rarely lead to anything good. Communities do. However, community sourcing is made more difficult when the community becomes skeptical that anything can help them. Such as when they fail to see results from their efforts.

Patrick continues, detailing that “crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology or an industry. Democracy is also a methodology.” Unfortunately, Patrick’s blog post on this issue does not detail the context of the quote to speak to. Nevertheless, Evgeny Morozov does an excellent job of detailing how crowdsourcing as a method has gone wrong.

While crowdsourcing is small part of a large process that can in rare cases lead to something “democratic,” it’s my hope that more efforts are pursued in positive crowdsourcing, some of the cases that the crisis mappers network has pursued. It’s crucial that the crowdsourcing methodology be applied with local respect, with privacy and security standards, and with larger goals, such as saving lives and supporting democracy as core values. While the network has taken some steps to pursue this, it does not mean that it’s currently a time to claim victory.

One Response to “When Crowdsourcing is Not Democracy”
  1. Robert Munro says:

    Mark, great post. I have worked with crowdsourcing technologies since Jeff Howe first coined the term. In industry, academia, and social good, we have pushed the boundaries in information processing and sharing in many very positive directions. This is due to people who have worked very hard to move things forward, and not because it is inherently democratic or positive. It is sad to see commentators crediting the ‘democratic magic’ of crowdsourcing for its successes when the real credit goes to the engineers who have struggled to build and rebuild the technologies and to the local efforts of the people who have collaborated to share and structure information.

    I just wrote an article that also questions whether open data is ‘democratizing’:
    Nice to see other people on the same page!

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