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Not Everyone Can Bathe in the Multitudes

Wednesday October 13th, 2010

“Not everyone can bathe in the multitudes,” wrote the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire in his prose poem “The Crowd”:

Deriving pleasure from the crowd is an art; and he alone can do it who creates an orgy of vitality at the expense of the human race, he who’s been visited in his crib by a fairy who fills him with a taste for dressing up and disguise, a hatred of the home and a passion for travel.

Are today’s business like the dandies of yesterday, deriving the pleasure of boundless creativity at the expense of the human race?

For some people, this is an accurate description of crowdsourcing. Our Raleigh-based photographer Bruce DeBoer sums up the argument well: “It’s not evil, but let’s get real, crowdsourcing isn’t innovation as much as novelty. Structuring a business around crowdsourcing is doing little more than upping your pool of freelance talent in order to put downward pressure on price and upward pressure on uniqueness.”

korean crowd

What kind of pressure are they putting on price? (Photo by Ben Weller/South Korea)

This is a dangerous enterprise. iStockPhoto, for example, had some trouble dealing with crowd outrage when it changed its payment structure, lowering royalties to as low as 15%. This was not a decision imposed by Getty, and the company explained the problem to its users:

Since roughly 2005 we’ve been aware of a basic problem with how our business works. As the company grows, the overall percentage we pay out to contributing artists increases. As a business model, it’s simply unsustainable.

An irate professional photographer even entered the online debate to reprimand the amateurs who participated in iStockPhoto:

All of you have been so happy to undercut traditional stock photography, copying the best selling images, shooting every hamburger you ever ate, and now that the traditional photographers (often derided as “trads” by you) have come in to beat you at your own game, you’re shocked—yes, shocked!—to find out that this is a business, not a little happy family giving each other muffins and logrolling in the forums. Well, welcome to the real world—the one that you made for yourselves.

It’s not yet clear what direction other collaborations, like the one between Getty and Flickr, will take. They’ve recently added a “Request to License” option to Flickr, which promises to bring even more people into the fray.

Jeff Howe of Wired, author of a book called Crowdsourcing has pointed out that there are two directions for microstock. It shows us that there is “a more complex market for images than previously existed”—consumers who wouldn’t have licensed images at all are now able to afford low-cost, low-res images. As an article in Bloomberg Business Week pointed out, defenders of microstock argue that the companies have “created a new market at a lower price range for customers who never would have paid the fees professional designers or traditional photo agencies charge.”

girls at store

A future market for photography? (Photo by Ben Weller/South Korea)

High-end markets, on the other hand, will continue to spend their considerable money on getting the best images. But the other side of it is that traditional stock photography is an unsteady industry; Howe underlines “the fact that both Getty and Corbis have seen their core businesses (rights-managed stock photography) suffer declines. It’s no accident that both are moving into microstock and otherwise diversifying their revenue sources.”

Media critic Douglas Rushkoff explained what this dynamic could mean for society:

I understand crowdsourcing as kind of an industrial age, corporatist framing of a cultural phenomenon. There’s human energy being expended here. A company can look at that as either a threat—to their copyrights and intellectual property or as some unwanted form of competition—or, if they see it positively, then they see it as almost this new affinity group population to be exploited as a resource. And I guess what I’m undecided on and debating internally is whether this is fine. In other words, am I naïve to think this isn’t the death knell for a community-oriented, collaborative, open source ethos? Has corporate America finally figured out the way to arrest this shift in the balance of power? Or do we let them believe they are doing this when actually it is human participation and collaboration going on, the kind of thing I would promote.

Of course, as Rushkoff implies, there are other expressions of crowdsourcing, ones which take place outside the market. Take a look, for example, at Star Wars Uncut. Users uploaded 15-second recreations of scenes from the movie, and then voted on their favorites. Here’s the trailer:

What direction do you see crowdsourcing going—exploitation and deprofessionalization, or creative and democratic cooperation? Let us know in the comments.

-Asad

2 Responses to “Not Everyone Can Bathe in the Multitudes”

  1. Bruce DeBoer says:

    Asad,

    Thanks for the post. I’d like to add that there is a distinct difference between Crowdsourcing and OpenSource Collaboration.

    Open source is when you ask for help creating something that benefits everyone; you are free to use and enjoy the outcome of your contribution or build on it further. At it’s heart, Open Source is creative collaboration.

    The benefits of Crowdsourcing are skewed decisively in one direction which makes it exploitative and THAT’s when people start getting pissed off. At it’s heart is the capitalization of under employed, retired, or enthusiastic amateur creative people.

    Both are here to stay, accept it an move on. However, crowdsourcing will forever be a tool for economic gain [and ultimately we know what to expect when an item competes on price]. Opensource creative collaboration on the other hand, will be responsible for brilliant new ideas as creativity is shared freely, and as projects become more complex it will become more valuable.

    My humble opinion. Thanks for including me in your post Asad.

  2. asad says:

    Thanks for making that great point, Bruce.

    Actually, open source has been criticized as a co-opted version of the original project, “free software.” Here’s an explanation by the founder of free software, Richard Stallman:

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html

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