If you've been around on the web long enough, especially if you've been involved with IT to some capacity, you may have memories of an anti Open Source sentiment. It wasn't unusual to see Open Source software compared to communism, and the idea that developers would starve trying to compete against free products. Thankfully we've survived that awkward period of the young Internet, but now a service named Chirply is launching that brings back similar feelings of devalued skilled work and competing against a product that drastically undercuts an entire Industry.
If you're unfamiliar with the term crowdsourcing it's okay because the word is still pretty new to our vocabularies. The word crowdsourcing is used to describe the process of farming work out to a community of people and only compensating a select few for their selected work. At its most basic level crowdsourcing is a non threatening and fun way to spur interest in a product. Examples include logo design contests and blogging contests. So crowdsourcing has been around for as long as the concept of a contest has, but the Internet amplifies its effects and raises some ugly truths about something so seemingly harmless
GAP tried to crowdsource their logo and felt a backlash.
The famous GAP logo debacle in which an overly simplistic re-branding sparked unrest that lead GAP to carelessly plea for crowdsourcing that resulted in even more unrest. There's a great summery on the Forbes blog entitled, "New Gap Logo Hated by Many, Company Turns to Crowdsourcing Tactics" that talks a little bit about the stirred pot of emotions that crowdsourcing effects.
“My plea to designers: do not post new logos for @Gap’s benefit. Protect your profession & insist that work be strategic & compensated.” - Paul Soulellis via Twitter. So why does Mr. Soulellis feel this is about protecting a profession? Is it because he doesn't like logo contests? To be fair, he probably doesn't like logo contests, but it's not for the same reasons a layperson would. Let's explain why with a much more low key example of crowdsourcing.
Mealeo exploits weekend designers and pays unfair price for massive amount of spec work.
Back in the summer of 2010 an "order food online" service called Mealeo decided it was time to create some new marketing materials. Under normal circumstances when a company is looking for new creative they will contact a communications or design firm. Contacting an experienced design company is usually an important piece of creating new marketing materials because you need to make sure your materials are both strategic and of high quality. Mealeo did not do this. Instead, Mealeo sent an email out to over 10,000 email subscribers with the guidelines of a poster contest. The winner would receive an incredible $300 USD for their work while the other contestants would receive nothing.
That's great for Mealeo, but bad for everyone else. It's bad for the design and communications community because they've been severely undercut to the extent that they wouldn't even be able to compete in the competition (no compensation.) It's bad for the contestants because everyone but the winner will have toiled and wasted their valuable time and skills (no compensation.) It's bad for the winner because they're winning a prize that is nowhere near the commercial value (little compensation.) Finally, it's bad for everyone else because it lays a framework for companies to exploit volunteers and good natured people while diluting the value of professional workers.
Enter Chirply, the next generation of crowdsourcing and social media.
A new company called Chirply is launching. It seems harmless enough. Users submit their own pieces of artwork for use as greeting cards. The best ones are voted up to the top, and customers can buy these unique greeting cards. TheNextWeb even wrote a glowing review of Chirply just in time for its launch. There's nothing negative in that article, in fact I'd say the whole thing smells like a dozen roses. That is of course until you actually visit Chirply and read about their inaugural design contest.
Winning designers will receive $300, and there is no limit to the number of submissions or the number of designs that one designer can submit and win.
What they really meant to say, is that Chirply is now ready to receive the art and design community's many hours worth of spec work and not pay a dime to anyone but a single winner. Of course no one's complaining yet, the framework to do this has already been proven. Chirply can farm out work to naive white collar workers without risk of ever having to pay a single penny if they don't make their two pennies first. It's not Chirply's fault, heck, this makes a great business plan.
Going back to the comparison with early open source software, there is one gigantic difference that makes outsourcing design unethical. Open source software helps contribute code to a community that can be used by almost all of humanity. Non-winning entries of crowdsourced artwork are simply thrown away, or worse, kept around and used as a marketing campaign towards social media users, used as fake gestures of community involvement and support. The problem is not the individual companies doing these acts, the problem is the framework and social acceptance of crowdsourcing design. Only you can fight these practices by not participating and educating your friends and colleagues as to why participating is against everyone's best interests. Outsourcing doesn't have to be related to design, it can be used as a tactic to farm out any digital content. Your work could be next.