The Origin of Crowdsourcing: Deep Within the Red-Hot Concept Lies a Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

THIS STORY originally was written and published on November 7, 2006, by David Crumm.


Right now — before you read further — check your watch and note
today’s date if this is the first time you have encountered this word.

I first heard it on Friday evening when my bright-eyed, 17-year-old son Benjamin, cruising news on the Internet, turned to me and asked, “Hey, Dad, do you know the word, ‘Crowdsourcing’?”
admitted that I didn’t. And, Benjamin replied, “Well, you’re going to
learn a whole lot more about it, because it’s what’s going to happen to
you and the Detroit Free Press very, very soon.”

And so, I thought, as Sherlock Holmes put it so simply, “The game’s afoot!”
begins a mystery that is well worth a few moments of our time to
consider, because –- especially if you’ve never heard this word before –-
believe me, you desperately need to understand it. It’s going to affect
the shape of the morning newspaper you receive in coming months — and,
for religiously minded readers of this blog, it is intertwined in your
future as well.

No, you probably haven’t heard it referenced in a religious conference yet.
At the moment, this idea is sizzling through the minds of business
leaders. It may take a good year or so for religious leaders to catch
on to the connection. But – trust us here at Spirit Scholars – what
this term really names is a major shift in global culture that we’ve
all been struggling to name for years.
Author and
religion-publishing guru Phyllis Tickle describes this global religious
churning as “Reformation,” a fundamental spiritual shift, not only in
religious realignments but in the way that people to approach religion.

as I have come to describe it in the pages of the Free Press and here
in this online magazine: Religion boils down to A Revelation to be Accepted
–- and Spirituality basically is A Quest to be Pursued. Taken together,
these strands are a double helix: the DNA of faith.

certain ages and religious traditions, one strand is turned toward the
public  more prominently than the other, but most of the world’s great
faiths embrace both strands. So, for instance, while Islam’s core is
“submission to god” (the first strand), it also calls  men and women
toward a quest (the second strand) into the pages of the Quran and into
a literal quest to Mecca.

However, at the moment,
this new Reformation that Phyllis and so many other writers, myself
included, have been charting for years, truly is the triumphant
whirling toward us of the DNA strand of Spirituality.

And, now, the dominance of this strand in our era has a new name: Crowdsourcing.

Baker Street Irregulars and all other readers,
follow me through this little mystery. Because, in early May of this year (2006), there
were only 3 Google hits for the term
-– and all were
related to the writer who was about to explode this new word like some
kind of Sci Fi mega-blast all around the world.
Now? As of this afternoon, Google logs 1,930,000 hits on the term.

Never heard the word until this moment? What mastermind set off this linguistic bomb?
Well, first, a definition: Crowdsourcing
has been described as “the rise of the amateur,” by its creator. And,
from the online source that the new term was coined to define: the
user-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia, the term means, “Like
outsourcing, crowdsourcing is a model that depends on work being done
outside the traditional company walls. But, while outsourcing is
typically performed by lower paid professionals, crowdsourcing relies
on a combination of volunteers and low-paid amateurs who use their
spare time to create content, solve problems, or even do corporate

But, now – It’s also the term that the online community is using to describe the revolution sweeping through Gannett newspapers in
which the physical newspapers will become less important and online
content will become more important -– and the major new focus of
reporting will be to motivating crowds of readers to get involved, help
with investigations and provide amateur content that will enliven
If you’re reading this article from the viewpoint of religion –-
you should be catching on that what we’re talking about here is what’s
already happening in religious communities across the United States.
Whether religious leaders choose to admit it or not, vast numbers of
Americans now claim the power to write their own creeds – whether that
takes the form of  a personal choice that leads into very conservative
practices or a choice that leads toward a free-floating swim in
spiritual waters.
But this idea that we all should make our own spiritual choices is, fundamentally, Crowdsourcing!

So, who coined this term? (Hint:
That’s him at left with his child.) Well, the humbling truth is that,
despite those 1,930,000 Google hits, the word hasn’t  appeared yet in
most major U.S. newspapers, according to the Lexis-Nexis database of
publications. In fact,
worldwide, the coverage of the emergence of this term in the
professional media seems, on balance, to be as confused as it is

The first mention in a major U.S. newspaper appears to be a June 5 edition of the Boston Globe. The earliest professional journalists to spot this hot new term were in Japan, New Zealand, England and Canada. Unfortunately, despite their speed at spotting the term, they did a poor job of charting its origins.
Times of London has mentioned the term several times, once crediting it
to an article in the June issue of Wired Magazine, written by
contributing editor Jeff Howe, but in other references muddying the
waters by seeming to credit the term to Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor
who published a hot new book this summer, “The Long Tail.” Things got a
little confusing, apparently, because the promotional push that
launched Anderson’s book immediately grabbed hold of “crowdsourcing” as
a hot and helpful term.

newspapers around the globe picked up the term in interviews with
business innovators – and further confused the issue by crediting the
term’s origin to the person who first mentioned it to the reporter in
the interview. Reading a couple of those stories, the innovation seems
to spring fully formed from the minds of company spokespeople, rolling
out the idea as virtually their own.

But, the truth is this:
It was, indeed, Jeff Howe who coined the term in the June issue of
Wired (and who later broke the Gannett story about crowdsourcing in a Friday Wired article
that sharp-eyed readers like 17-year-old Benjamin spotted immediately).

Frankly, Howe had little idea what he was doing when he published the term for the first time in Wired. Very quickly, he did realize that the term was red hot, because he soon created a Blog called Crowdsourcing
to claim his turf, much like explorers of another era planted flags on
fresh soil. But, at first, he no idea that this term would explode.
In fact, if you click here to read the original article,
you’ll find that the term is coined in the ninth paragraph – in a
clever line, but a reference that didn’t exactly declare itself to be a
linguistic milestone.
What’s amazing is that, by Sept. 5, the San
Francisco Chronicle had elevated this made-up word to the status of a
“modern technological rubric.” And, news sources from ABC News to
Business Week around the world were immediately labeling this as a
well-accepted wave of the future.

What’s also remarkable, through all of this, is the realization that
the innovator himself, Jeff Howe, was able to detonate the linguistic
bomb –- but his innovation did not extend to understanding all the
powerful ramifications of what he had unleashed by naming this seismic
shift in global culture.
In other words, the shift
already was taking place –- Howe certainly didn’t touch it off –- but by
naming it with a single Memo-friendly term –- Howe  unleashed a fresh
wave of restlessly creative executives to grab hold of its leash. Now,
they knew what to call this Thing That Was Already Happening in the
Marketplace in a Memo to the staff. It is Crowdsourcing. And it is HOT,
they could say.
appears to be happening now within Gannett, although the planners of
Gannett’s latest future actually were late in arriving at the term.

In fact, it looks like the term was shoved in their laps by Howe – but,
now, the enormous online buzz over the past weekend suggests that
Gannett may soon become the latest adopter of the word.

Nevertheless, like
Martin Luther 500 years ago failing to realize all of the upheaval that
his actions would unleash, Howe hasn’t fully grasped all that his new
term represents.
For instance, when ABC News’ Maya
Kulycky interviewed Howe on Sept. 19, he seemed clueless about the huge
moral and social concerns inherent in this movement – issues of quality
control for business, or accuracy for journalists, or morality and
religious truth for communities of faith.

asked Jeff: “Let me ask you what the advantages are for crowdsourcing,
and the disadvantage for companies. And what are some of the problems
with it?”
His first long answer began with: “I’m not sure there are disadvantages for companies.
advantages are immense cost savings and often a much better-designed
product because really what you’re doing is you’re tapping a consumer
base … that knows better than your own staff in a lot of cases, you
know, how to, you can almost say, please themselves.”

anyone who is part of a faith community should re-read that exchange,
print out the words, tape them to your office wall, print them in your
newsletter, mention them in a sermon illustration. Because right there
is the core of the renamed Reformation
Now, at ABC, Maya didn’t let Jeff off the hook quite so easily.
She pressed him to at least name one disadvantage and here’s what he
said: “You could say quality control. I mean more money goes into
making sure that what these users are creating, you know, is in fact up
to snuff.”

reading this article through the eyes of the religious community -– that
is, indeed, the core issue, isn’t it? We tend to call that issue
Authority: What authority holds the keys to our archive of truth?

Well, following this Sherlock
Holmes trek around the world and deep into the limitless cosmos of the
Internet, we come finally to the Big Bang of crowdsourcing – the first
online glimpse of the term.

And what we find,
amazingly enough, is a spiritual image. No kidding! Lurking there at
the Big Bang of “crowdsourcing” is the 1,000-arm image of Guan Yin,
sometimes spelled in other ways, a famous Buddhist image of compassion. The 1,000-arm imagery arises in an ancient legend that says Guan Yin was so
intent on healing the world’s many wounds that through a miracle of
spiritual power, her arms split apart into 1,000 separate arms, each
capable of helping a needy person.
Los Angeles artist James Jean
said it was this image that sprang into his mind when Wired hired him
to illustrate Howe’s first story about crowdsourcing. (Look back at the
sketches of multi-armed business people, which appear above in this
article. They’re little details of the sketches Jean prepared for the
Wired illustration.)

Well, what a
fascinating, bright, spiritual hope at the dawn of this new
terminology, this new name that we are proposing now for the
Reformation. Of course, before we all celebrate, there is this haunting
business to consider: We all know from history how stormy, violent and
tragic events tend to accompany a Reformation.

In a
Sept. 25 issue, Business Week already signaled this danger.
Crowdsourcing certainly holds bright promises, the magazine said, but:
“Used improperly, it can produce silly or wasteful results. Crowds can
be wise, but they can also be stupid.”

So, shall we all close this little Adventure in Culture by voicing a
prayer that crowdsourcing’s many arms, even as they extend soon across
southeast Michigan, are mainly realized as a gift of  compassion.
Frankly, the alternative is too sad to contemplate so soon in the fresh and heady springtime of this glorious Reformation.

But, please, tell us what you think — post a Comment here or send us an Email.

And, please: Read on! After all, you are the Authority now!

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