Here’s an old article, but since I’m sitting at a talk discussing the wisdom of crowds, it seems appropriate. Crowdsourcing has become an increasingly dominant force on the internet ever since “social media” became a meme. Anyone can produce anything, and distribute/produce it for a fraction of the traditional cost. This is a big win for consumers of content and the advertisers that support it, since distribution is basically free and the directory of content on the Internet is massive. People who believe in open-source, free access, and free content are nearly religious in their support of it. One simply needs to observe the sheer number of manhours going into the Linux, or Mozilla project to see how much people care, and love to hate things like DRM. Some are killed off publically by the old model of business (Napster comes to mind), but they’re quickly replaced by analogous services that make it even harder to derive value out of consumers of content.
Whether this is good or bad for the world at large is debatable, and there’s an increasingly vocal group of individuals, organizations, and companies opposing this disruptively open world, and their ranks seem to grow with each new web service designed to leverage the masses. The claim is made that today’s internet model is devaluing the work of traditional creative forces everywhere, music, movies… to which the average American consumer (and certainly, moreso elsewhere in the world) discounts as corporate greed. While the local-culture movement has helped sustain small-scale artists, ultimately if/when they get signed by a larger label, the ultimate value that can be derived from their work is declining.
However, now a couple new startups–crowdSPRING and 99Designs–are quickly bringing this to another group of creative forces: artists and designers. These services allow a content consumer (for example, a business needing a logo), to connect with a huge number of designers. For each post, submissions can be received from several designers, for which, only the poster selected work receives compensation. Clearly, this is great for the consumers of content, but what about the producers? Judging by the backlash against these sites, designers don’t seem to like being reduced to doing “speculative work” without any guarantee for pay. Then again, maybe this is just market forces at work. Jeff Howe writes that “The demand for low-end design has ballooned in recent years… so has the supply of what we might call “low-end designers” (amateurs, recent grads, and the like).” He goes on to mention that there are some eighty thousand freelance designers in the U.S., a shockingly high number, but if there’s demand, why not create the market?
The two startups are certainly doing well–and for creating a marketplace where creative forces can meet consumers, why not? Apple did it with its App Store, and Microsoft with Xbox Live. Yet there’s a fundamentally different dynamic here; in that, while the aforementioned two services help producers find a market of consumers, crowdSPRING exists more to level the playing field for designers. “Professional” designers now compete in the same space as freelancers, and that’s where the complaints come in.
In my mind, all this yelling is a sign that traditional economic models are changing; some win, some lose, but those doggedly holding onto the old will most certainly fall. If you, as a professional designer, can’t compete against new college grads, and hobbyists, too bad. There are a couple instances where I feel the model fails, for example, this story, where it’s said the Twitter “bird logo” designer only got paid $6 for his work, seems a little unjust. But this may be just a matter of too much supply–when you have 80,000 freelance designers, it’s not too hard to find someone that will work for just a little less.
Ultimately, it’s still a free market; if designers don’t want to work for $6 then they don’t have to. Tough luck for design firms; hopefully they’ll be able to find a way to differentiate their services. I do have one small consolation for the $6 designer; he might as just made the Twitter bird for $6, but I bet his next assignment will come a lot easier.