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A Billion Amateurs

3 min read

I log on to the Internet from my little attic office, and I’m connected to the world, feeling both alone and part of the largest crowd ever assembled. There are a billion people out there on the Net with me.

The news is always full of the spammers, the predators, the evil hackers, and the other ­miscreants who would be found in any such crowd, because that’s the way news works—it mainly tells you about the bad stuff.

Today, though, I want to talk about the wonders and the enormous potential of this congregation of amateurs. I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and, yes, the generosity that has been unleashed by the social embrace of the infrastructure that we technologists created originally to connect our computers.

I love to hear from people who have found something on the Web that I’ve provided. It gives me the feeling of having reached across oceans to bestow a small gift on a stranger, thereby dispelling our common facelessness within the crowd. On the Internet there is an irresistible urge to contribute.

There are many examples today of ”business” models that are enabled by our urge to be generous. I put business in quotation marks because many of the models are themselves acts of charity. Others make money only as an afterthought. I recently asked the founder of a Web site that enables people to subtitle videos what his business model was. He replied in one word: ”ubiquity.”

In the current list of the 20 most popular Web sites, half have essentially all their content provided free by amateurs: MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, eBay, Craigslist, Wikipedia, Blogger, the Internet Movie Database, Photobucket, and Flickr. They’re all examples of what open-source guru Tim O’Reilly has termed an ”architecture of participation.” Build it, and they will come.

I am entranced by the vision that Jimmy Wales, for example, showed in creating Wikipedia. I can’t imagine announcing that I was establishing an encyclopedia not by writing anything myself but just by letting anyone come and create entries. People would have told me I was crazy. Yet it worked so well that Wikipedia has become one of the most popular sites on earth. You don’t need to pay people to write articles—the thrill and satisfaction of contributing provides the motivation.

I imagine the legion of paid professionals in the traditional encyclopedia world looking skeptically at the Wikipedia endeavor. ”Amateurs! What do they know?” Well, when there are a billion of them, they know pretty much everything. Of course, there are a lot of unpaid professionals out there, too.

Meanwhile, those billion amateurs are taking pictures of everything on the planet and placing the images on Flickr and other sites. There are thousands upon thousands of pictures of every known place, taken from all angles and under all lighting conditions. Researchers are now using those pictures to create three-dimensional images and panoramic vistas.

And those amateurs are writing blogs—an estimated 80 ­million of them. Who reads them all, I wonder? But never mind—what a treasure trove of living news, feelings, observations, and information! Again, researchers are pawing through the rubbish, looking for nuggets with such tools as sentiment analysis, asking questions like ”Is the world relatively happy today?” The billion amateurs know the answer, and they have found their voice.

There is no lack of free labor if the smallest incentive is offered. I’ve heard it said that last year people spent 9 ­billion hours ­playing computer solitaire. (I have no idea where such a number comes from, but we’d all agree that it’s bound to be large.) In contrast, it is said that it required only 20 million hours of human labor to build the Panama Canal. So if you could offer people a game that incidentally collected information, you’d be in business, so to speak. One such game, ESP, in which contestants suggest captions for pictures that they believe will agree with captions submitted by an unknown partner, is being used to caption pictures on the Web—a job that computers are not yet capable of doing.

The Iowa Electronic Markets provide proof of ”the wisdom of crowds”—the idea that everybody put together in a market is smarter than any one individual [see ”Bet on It!IEEE Spectrum, September]. There you can invest in political futures, and the vibrant market of amateurs has proven a better election predictor than the polls run ever so scientifically by professionals.

Just think: a billion people out there willing to work for nothing more than a little credit! Let the business models flow!

About the Author

ROBERT W. LUCKY (IEEE Fellow), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technologies in Red Bank, N.J. (rlucky@telcordia.com).

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