Chapter 1: The Rise of the Amateur

The author speaks of a "shadow labor force" of people who engage in hobbies and pastimes, from arts and crafts to academic interests. Isolated and disconnected, these people contribute nothing to the rest of the world and their time is spent in amusing themselves. But if they are connected and coordinated, there is huge potential.

After that, there's a rambling story about a crowd-created music awards event and amateur photographers who contribute to an independent stock photo database. The point is unclear, though he does mention along the way that people don't seem to mind if things are a bit amateurish and clumsy when they are getting things for free.

But it's not always a free ride. Many service providers make quite a bit of money on commission, as their sites are an exchange in which individual customers and small providers meet. He gives the example of one medical student who participated in a crowdsourced stock photography site to make some spending money, and ended up making around ten thousand dollars a month.

(EN: I've personally known a few other people who have attempted to earn income through various efforts like this. The success stories are quite rare and the average contributor makes very little money for a whole lot of effort. This is likely not unusual: when there are few providers and many consumers, providing content can be lucrative - but when their success draws a crowd to the scene, the profits are split up among too many hands.)

He refers to crowdsourcing as "the amateur renaissance" - but then quickly suggests that we probably need to consider what we mean by "amateur." Traditionally, it meant a person who does something for their own amusement and doesn't make money. The IRS uses $5,000 per year in revenue as the breaking point between where something is a tax-free hobby and a taxable business.

This is likely a worthwhile consideration for the participant - but for the organizer, the like between amateur and professional becomes blurred. If you're selling stock photos, you really don't care if the contributors are trying to earn a living or just doing it for kicks - you just want good photos that people will pay to use.

He then suggests that there is a similar problem with what we consider to be an "amateur" - because it is not the amount of time a person has spent doing something that matters. So by the same token, organizers don't care if contributors went to art school or are members of an industry association, so long as the product is good.

Some crowdsourcing efforts don't pay at all. They tend to attract people without professional credentials and a low level of skill. But this is often true of efforts that offer payment, as the payment is generally low. Most contributors are not attracted by a desire to make money, but are donating their time to a cause. Just like with distributed computing, they have excess capacity they are willing to lend.

He mentions blogs as a precursor to crowdsourcing. Before they were commercialized, people shared their knowledge on blogs as a labor of love - though the blog remained the "property" of its author and the esteem for having a blog is generally higher than being an anonymous contributor to a wiki.

It's also suggested that amateurs can outperform professionals not by their skills, but by their sheer number. The example he provides is the re-discovery of a bird that was assumed by scientists to be extinct - but amateur birdwatchers found it in other locations. There simply aren't enough ornithologists in academia to have made this discovery. Likewise, the sheer volume of observations submitted by amateur birdwatchers has contributed vastly more data than the small community of academics who are involved in the subject. "Simple data collection doesn't require a PhD."

He also reflects on the fact that this notion of "credentialed professional" is a relatively recent development. Until the nineteenth century, science was generally the domain of dilettantes - wealthy aristocrats with a bit too much time on their hands dabbled in things, wrote books, and became recognized authorities. Few of them had advanced degrees, or even undergraduate degrees in the field in which they would later become a figurehead. Many of them were members of the aristocracy, or at least of the upper social classes, who would have been deeply insulted by being called a "professional" in any field. The members of the Royal Society, responsible for the greatest advances in human knowledge, were amateurs by the contemporary definition.

He also stresses the quality of the general public. A hundred years ago, college education was reserved to the few. In the year 2000, it was estimated that 63% of American high school graduates went on to college. And it's very common for students to take courses across a broad spectrum of subjects and to have a "minor" concentration that has nothing to do with their degree - such that even a student with a degree in accounting may be quite well-versed in art history.

It's also suggested that people's professional lives are often far flung from their area of study. Few science majors will practice "pure science" as their profession, and many drift into other jobs out of necessity. A chemistry graduate is more likely to become an investment banker than a chemist - and while he is working in investment banking, he remains qualified and interested in chemistry. Only through activities outside the workplace will he have the opportunity to apply those skills. "Their first love is science ... they'll jump at the chance to come home and start practicing pure science."

There is an anecdote about a virtual community called "innocentive" that presents problems for amateurs to solve, and providing a solution earns a bounty of a few thousand dollars. One participant is mentioned, an Italian woman who was educated in chemistry but was unable to find a job in her profession. By day, she's an ordinary housewife - but in the evenings after tucking the children into bed, she goes to work in a home laboratory working on their problems. The amount of money she has "won" by solving these problems is a pittance, and a great bargain for the firms who post them, but it enables her to work in her chosen discipline.

There are also many tasks that can be crowdsourced because they require no professional skills at all. One does not need a degree of any kind to report the price of gas at a local station or to post that traffic is congested. These individuals function as organic sensors/detectors, reporting phenomena that require no special skills to detect or interpret accurately. Arguably, to spend time in the field counting the number of bluebirds is a waste of time for someone with a PhD in biology, as it's a task even a child could do.