Ch 1: The Appeal of Crowdsourcing & The Porcupine’s Dilemma

From the E-Book Crowdsourcing As a Shortcut to the Technological Singularity

Pencil Drawing of a Porcupine

Is there anything as tense, as uncertain, or as potentially painful as interacting with our fellow man?

Experience says no…

Yet, we also know, from experience, that our social-connections are the most valuable things we can ever have!

Not only have we evolved to be social-animals (who see social-interaction as having value as a thing-in-itself), but the practical advantages of cooperating with others are undeniably enormous.

So, obviously, this is a problem!

A Prickly Insight

A famous German philosopher from the 1800's, Arthur Schopenhauer, paints the picture perfectly with his parable, The Porcupine Dilemma

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However, the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened.
At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.
In the same way, the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told — in the English phrase — to keep their distance.
By this arrangement, the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked.
Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396:[1]

Behold, the lesson to be learned from this, jaded though it may be, is the key to understanding the value of internet based phenomena which is crowdsourcing. Furthermore, to understand the success of crowdsourcing, we have to recognize that it is a response to, and a solution to, the porcupine dilemma.

How does CS solve the Porcupine Dilemma?

In Short, Two ways:

1. It gives you the benefit of working and interacting with others
while also giving you protection from the uncomfortable and awkward bits via, a digital-intermediary, a platform.

2. It proposes and legitimizes work-related social contracts automatically without requiring direct negotiation or communication.


The rest of Ch 1 is intended for readers who want to continue to examine the social psychology of crowdsourcing.

If you would rather skip ahead to the more futuristic stuff, chapters 2–8, feel free. The table of contents is at the bottom of this article.

You can observe points 1 & 2 (above) best by looking at each subcategory of crowdsourcing: crowdfunding, social-search, open-innovation, and microtasking.


Porcupine Problem:

Asking someone for money, whether it’s a donation, loan, or an investment, is always going to be awkward, and setting the terms of how exactly to transfer the funds is not only a tense situation; it’s a complicated one. It also requires a good amount of effort and communication.

CS Solution:

Allow people to make a generic plea to everyone, all at once (a kind of marketing campaign), and put it on a platform where others are doing the same (making it a socially-accepted behavior). It makes asking-for and giving money a social, safe, and fun activity.

How does it do this?

  • Re-framing: Crowdfunding makes the off-putting behavior that is ‘asking for money’ into something that is entertaining, expected, non-committal, and open.
  • Social Proof: It allows ‘backers’ to look at the social-proof, the proof that shows it is something worthwhile and reliable, the proof that other human beings deem it a valuable endeavor run by a trustworthy individual. (It is “proof” that is usually won IRL after considerable snooping and getting to know someone).

While it may save you from negative emotions, crowdfunding takes advantage of them too. (By negative, I mean emotions like pressure and fear.)

  • The “fear” of contributing to someone’s failure.
  • The “pressure” to act by a deadline.

In the end, with a digital intermediary in place, both the asker and the asked are more protected than not, within a crowdfunding platform, from negative emotions… The biggest of these emotions being the awkward-nervous feeling we get from inconveniencing someone or of being inconvenienced by someone /put-upon, etc.


Porcupine Problem:

When you search for an answer to a question online, sometimes your algorithm-powered search-engine does not yield a helpful result. This is often because it doesn’t even know what you’re asking. It’s not like a human that can just make-up an improvised answer, and, if it doesn’t know, it can’t even give you advice to help further your search the way a person could).

Let’s not pick on search engines though; when it comes to asking questions, individuals aren’t always particularly helpful either.

  • One person can’t know all the answers. And, it isn’t practical to ask hundreds of people a difficult question until you find an answer.
  • Even if you only need to ask a handful of people the question (before you know you’ll find a suitable answer), your peers do not always want to be bothered at random times with questions. Do they?

CS Solution:

Make question-asking is expected… with a platform where questions are routed to people who are ‘tagged’ as having a relevant interest in the topic you are asking about … or are in proximity to relevant details about something you’d like to know (e.g., the length of a line at a particular store/restaurant or event taking place at a certain time, etc.).

In other words, ‘social-search’ makes question asking-and-answering a non-committal, more anonymous, and more convenient thing to do.


Porcupine Problem:

Organizations often want to tap into the talent, ideas, and special-knowledge of others. However, employing new people means taking risks, and managing a working relationship, even with freelancers, is difficult and time-consuming.

CS Solution:

Replace employment-contracts with contests. Use contest-rules, and pay only the winner (i.e., pay only for desirable results).
Form the other point of view, as someone who enters the contest, know exactly where you stand without having to commit to anything, enjoy the possibility of making more money, avoid long conversations, and work for results rather than by-the-hour.

In short, open-innovation inspires work to be done while pushing traditional ideas of employment and collaboration out to the side.


Porcupine Problem:

Getting work done means engaging employees or volunteers, and both these situation require managing individuals, lots of communication, bargaining, and deliberation over various terms such as timelines, locations, meetings, and schedules.

CS Solution

Employers and volunteer-coordinators can offer payment or other forms of recognition only for (satisfactorily) completed tasks.
On the flip side, employees or volunteers don’t have to agree to set-schedules, a location, or use energy in proactively learning from their employer what is wanted.

Other benefits:

  • Taskers, as opposed to ‘employees’, can work as much or as little as they please from the convenience of any location with internet.
  • The complexity of ‘the workplace’ can be reduced to the simplicity of a GUI. After that it’s basically a spreadsheet, a set of instructions, and an online payment-system.

In short, microtasking splits up job-roles into units-of-work that can be tackled by anyone at any-time. It obviates the need for large commitments, lengthy communication, and negotiation for both worker and the one needing work to be done. Microtasking is a powerful technology, in the world of work, that has yet to be tapped for its true potential.

Summary: A Different Kind of Social-Contract

Am I your employer?
Are you my employee?
Are you a volunteer?
Are you my sponsor or a customer?
When can I stop working?
Do I have to pay you for that thing you just did?…

These are terms that, in crowdsourcing are always decided by the platform, not by awkward, time-consuming back-and-forth’s between multiple people holding multiple roles.

Commentary: Irony in the News

It’s a little humorous to me that the press’s depiction of crowdsourcing is as ‘a triumph of collaboration and teamwork’… when the reality is that it’s actually a triumph of a collection of well-designed impersonal, often socially-isolating social-contracts and the technologies that enable them.

Indeed, crowdsourcing is so effective because it quells the inherently fickle nature of human interaction, standardizing it, to eliminate the pitfalls and risks.

But, try writing that in a Christmas card!

Then, maybe you’ll see why this aspect of crowdsourcing is not much talked about... It’s much easier to talk about how crowdsourcing breeds inclusiveness, enables self-expression, inspires crowd-ingenuity, etc. The truth is probably somewhere more in the middle. It’s a wrangler, a sheep dog of the crowd and individuals.

Humans as Software Programs

Many have used a metaphor for crowdsourcing (especially in the form of microtasking) that paints it as treating people like software-programs with human capabilities. After all, programming is all about breaking up work into smaller parts and steps, and cs does the same; it’s a natural connection to make.

In the end, treating people like software is a good thing, but not for the happiest of reasons (i.e., it makes unreliable people reliable by treating them as disposable cogs in a workflow). Nevertheless, doing this gets rid of the potential for guilt, fear, a sense of obligation, and lying, often involved in employment situations, in the process.

The Warm-and-Fuzzy of Crowdsourcing Though!!!

It’s a mistake to think that crowdsourcing is ALL about mitigating humanity’s disappointing side and its foibles.

There is a good reason think of crowdsourcing in a positive light. The warm and fuzzy side of it is that CS does assume (the truth) that most people are good (and have good intentions), that more people than-we-might-assume are capable of contributing (i.e., it’s open and inclusive), and that we all want the same thing in the end (i.e., to get things done and be rewarded for it).

The other warm and fuzzy thing about crowdsourcing lies in the fact that…the crowd knows that there is strength in numbers…

This is why there are many cs projects where the main ‘motive’ is simply to build a strong supportive community. Most social-search apps, for example, rely largely on this benevolence (in addition to people trying to gain social-recognition for their skill and hard work, of course). Very few social-search participants are paid for their help, yet they are vibrant communities. There are also countless online-communities that help people micro-volunteer or do other things to add to the common-good of a community, simply for the sake of seeing it grow.

So, yeah, crowdsourcing isn’t entirely fueled by ‘coldness’. It’s still a socially-positive activity… for the most part.

Next Up…

Now that we understand the appeal of crowdsourcing (including swallowing the spiky-pill-of-truth that is the porcupine-dilemma), let’s look at one particular practical-application of cs, social-search, and let’s look at its potential role in the future as a shortcut to AI-assistant style tech).

Put on your search-belts!