In the 1960’s, the Beatles’ famously sang about getting by “With A Little Help from My Friends”.
Today websites like Wikipedia, Word Press, and Amazon are bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of relying on others to help you reach your goals. In the digital age friends are not so much “friends” as they are collaborators, and these collaborators are generally anonymous strangers motivated by either a small sum of money or a desire to contribute to a shared project.
From a massive online encyclopedia to secretive government initiatives, people around the world are facilitating a digital phenomenon.
This phenomenon is referred to as the law of “Mechanical Turk” after the famous chess-playing “robot” from the 18th century. “The Turk”, which toured Europe under the guise of being a machine, was later revealed to be controlled by a (human) chess master hidden in a special compartment. Similarly, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk allows humans to help computers complete tasks they aren’t yet capable of. These “human intelligence” tasks can be assigned to the world at large; for example a task might be to label an image at a rate of one cent per image. Harvard University Professor Jonathan Zittrain likens this trend to that of “a rat pushing a button to get a pellet of food”.
While Amazon’s paid version of turking might seem dubious, sites like Word Press and Wikipedia are proving that a community of virtual strangers can effectively collaborate on a project which contributes to a greater good. Wikipedia (which garners over 10 million hits a day) has more than 90,000 “editors” ranging from scholars to casual users. What is perhaps even more remarkable about the success of such collaborative projects, is the implications they have for those in the information business. One needs to look no further than Microsoft’s failed Encyclopedia software to recognize the value of co-creation for consumers. A team of software engineers, design experts, and a multimillion dollar budget just couldn’t compete with Wikipedia’s free and continuous stream of information.
Of course this doesn’t mean that big brands are necessarily in danger because of turking sites like those mentioned above, just that they will need to be more innovative in order to compete in an open source market. A great example of a product which is complimented by open source modifications is a CRM template like SugarCRM. While there are multiple possible outcomes, users with similar needs can benefit from specifically modified templates. For example, users in one industry can effectively work together to build the best interface to suit their shared customer relationship objectives.
What open source and turking have done is simply allow for a more collaborative global environment where people can work together towards a common goal. Like SugarCRM and Wikipedia, all people need is a platform in which to work with. Paid or not, the general public has embraced turking and open source seems here to stay. This type of “teamwork” is changing our world and that’s a good thing; after all, aren’t humans supposed to help each other?