I am a big fan of the ‘Little Howard’s Big Question’ model for empirical research. If you don’t watch CBBC and aren’t a fan of cartoon boys, this approach may have passed you by. In a nutshell Little Howard and his big real world friend (Big Howard) ask questions about anything and everything in the world around them.

My current research focuses on artists’ who develop social-media led projects that encourage participation. This is structured around the requirements of an MA dissertation and consumes the majority of my time. Every so often I allow myself to explore Little Howard’s research technique which is far more open-ended. My last big question was ‘how many days will it take before I am bored of replacing every meal with fish finger sandwiches and individual trifles?’ After gathering quantitative data I concluded that the answer was three!

My most recent big question is weightier than the fish finger/trifle conundrum and is distracting be from my ‘proper’ work. Yesterday I attended a Creativity and Production workshop, the first in the series of workshops exploring digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users, at the University of Westminster. After an excellent presentation from Jim Richardson of Museum Next about the ways in which museums are using digital technology to engage with their audiences an interesting question came from the floor. The essence of it was: ‘is crowd sourced activity exploiting the audience through getting them to do the work of the organisation?’

Having experiences of both being a crowdsourcer and as a crowdsourcee (I think I may have invented those words) I was intrigued and challenged by the suggestion of exploitation. My experiences of crowdsourced activity have been overwhelmingly positive and have had a huge impact on my practice as an artist and I feel the need to reflect on why I think the answer to this big question is ‘NO’!

Last year I responded to a brief from Sally Fort who had been awarded a Connerhouse micro-commission to develop a project called QR-3D. Sally asked for makers (amateur or professional) to create a scannable 3D textiles QR code and upload a photograph of it to the project’s Flickr group. An online selection panel of experts then chose the work from the Flickr pool that they wanted to see exhibited at Cornerhouse.

My motivation for responding to the brief was to develop my practice; could I use my creative skills to execute the technical demands of the piece and as a participatory artist how could I involve other people? The project that followed involved working with 200 participants on and offline to create the 1089 hand rolled black and white felt balls necessary to build a QR code. When scanned the finished piece revealed the story behind its creation. You can read about how the project developed here.

As a crowdsourcer I traded my time teaching felt making skills for the labour to create the content of the piece and by embedding the narrative of the project into the piece the participant’s contribution was visible. As a crowdsourcee I provided content for Cornerhouse’s QR-3D exhibition and having the piece displayed gave me the opportunity to build my reputation as an artist. I don’t think that I exploited anybody in the process of this project and certainly didn’t feel exploited myself. It is my view that this project had characteristics of a ‘gift economy’ and provided reciprocal benefits for all involved.

I have also been pondering offline crowdsourcing in relation to this question, thinking in particular about museums and collections. The Brecknock Museum recently asked for local contributions to a forthcoming exhibition to celebrate 200 years of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Members of the public called into the Museum over the course of 2 days with objects, photographs and stories. All contributions were given freely by people who were keen to share. This type of activity is not uncommon in museums but would probably be described as ‘audience engagement’ rather than ‘crowdsourcing.’ It would be very unlikely that issues would be raised relating to exploitation although providing the content of an exhibition could be seen as ‘work.’

My background is in community arts and for me online platforms are the equivalent to the located project spaces of schools, village halls, community centres and the like. When I take my work online, crowdsourcing is a vital component of my practice and I use it both to bring people together and to build the content of my projects.

Crowdsourcing is elective and relies on people getting involved with a project because they want to. I was overwhelmed by the response of people who wanted to get involved in my online project We Found Art. Not only did participants contribute to a collection of found objects but they posted photographs, poems, songs, stories, and useful links. They commented on photographs and offered their opinions and specialist skills; For me this created a different notion of value within the project.

At this point Little Howard would summarize his thoughts so far in song form (usually including references to monkeys or dinosaurs) but I am going throw this big question open… what do you think? I would be very interested in hearing your comments; which I appear to be crowdsourcing!

Postscript: I have just found Charles Leadbeater’s essay ‘The Art of With’ commissioned by Cornerhouse and thought it would be useful to share his thoughts on this big question:

‘Why do people contribute to open projects, freely reveal their knowledge and ideas to others and why should an arts organisation seek to be open? When an organisation sets up a more open way of engaging with a community are its motives always the same as those of the outside contributors? One answer, the main one thus far in open source style projects is that people are motivated by a non-monetary passion to commit to a project. Open projects are sustained by a voluntary subsidy from user and developers. It all comes down to love for what they are doing, the ProAm ethic. Participation comes from intrinsic motivations and satisfactions, like the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. A slightly different answer is that there is a currency in these communities but it is not money, the currency is recognition and appreciation. People contribute because they like getting a sense of recognition from a community of peers. It’s this external validation and recognition that matters. The motivation is still non-monetary but external. Finally, there are those who argue that money does matter. People need to make a living somehow, even if they are contributing a lot to open projects. They still need to be able to put bread on the table. Some worry that money is a distortion of the purer motives that seem to underpin open projects. Others take a much more pragmatic view that they understand how to mix making money – for example by adapting open source to particular markets and users – and contributing to open source projects. It’s not a matter of principle but a question of tactics.’ (Leadbeater, 2009, p16)