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

Crowdsourcing As a Shortcut to the Technological Singularity (Free E-Book)


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

There is a parable, called ‘The Porcupine Dilemma’, written by a famous German philosopher from the 1800's, Arthur Schopenhauer, that paints the picture perfectly:

Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396:[1]
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.

This lesson, as jaded as it is, is at the heart of understanding the value of crowdsourcing. Indeed, to understand the success of crowdsourcing, we first have to understand that it is a response to and a solution to the porcupine dilemma.

How does CS solve the Porcupine Dilemma?

It does this in two ways:

  1. It gives you the benefits of working and interacting with others
    while blocking you from the uncomfortable and awkward bits, via a digital intermediary, usually a platform.

2. It automatically proposes and legitimizes new kinds of social-contracts.

At this point, if you want to skip ahead to the future-focused chapters 2–8, feel free. Below is just a more in-depth look at my opinions on the appeal of crowdsourcing in its modern form.

You can see these two points above best when seeing them at play in specific applications…


Porcupine Problem:

Asking anyone 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 do it is not only tense but also complicated, requiring a good amount of effort and communication for both requester and donor.

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). Crowdfunding online also makes the potentially off-putting behavior of ‘asking for money’ entertaining, expected, non-committal, and open.

Furthermore, it allows ‘backers’ to look at the social-proof that proves it is something worthwhile and reliable. (Social-proof that is usually only won after considerable snooping and getting to know someone).

Yet, crowdfunding still takes advantage of a few negative emotions, as well. By this, I mean emotions like pressure and fear. For example, the fear of contributing to someone’s failure. This fear is there to motivate a person to act by a certain deadline (i.e., put on the pressure).

With the barrier of a digital intermediary in place, both the asker and the asked are protected from feelings of social awkwardness, especially feelings of inconveniencing or being inconvenienced, or put-upon, etc. Yet, the platform provides enough communication and a sense of urgency to get the money to change hands.

In short, crowdfunding makes asking for and giving money a socially safe and fun activity.


Porcupine Problem:

On the information science side of things, sometimes your algorithm-powered search-engine doesn’t always know what it is you’re asking, and, unfortunately, it can’t just make up the answer (the way a sufficiently knowledgeable person could) either.

Then, on the human side of things, one person can’t know all the answers, nor is it practical for a person to ask hundreds of random-people a difficult question until they find an answer. Furthermore, even if you only need to ask a handful of people the question (before you know you’ll find a suitable answer), others do not always want to be bothered at random times with questions.

CS Solution:

A platform where question-asking is expected… an interface 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 location or event at a certain time, etc.).

In short, ‘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 comes with many risks, and managing a working relationship, even with freelancers, is difficult, as well as sometimes unreliable 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 of the picture.


Porcupine Problem:

Getting work done means employment or volunteering, and both these things 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 correctly 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. Taskers, as opposed to ‘employees’, can work as much or as little as they please from the convenience of any location with internet. And, the complexity of ‘the workplace’ can be reduced to the simplicity of a GUI for 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.

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.

Irony in the News

It’s a little humorous to me that the popular depiction of crowdsourcing in the press is one of ‘a triumph of collaboration and teamwork’… when the reality is that it’s actually a triumph of impersonal, at times socially isolating, social-contracts (and the technology that enables them).

Indeed, crowdsourcing quells the inherently fickle nature of human interaction, standardizing it to eliminate the pitfalls and risks. But, try writing that in a Christmas card, and maybe you’ll see why this aspect of crowdsourcing is not much talked about... It’s much easier to talk about how it enables inclusiveness, self-expression, crowd-ingenuity, etc.

Human Software

Many have compared crowdsourcing (especially in the form of microtasking) to treating people like software-programs with human capabilities, a kind of human-software. After all, programming is all about breaking up work into smaller parts and steps, so 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!

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