Crowdsourcing and Switching Costs
| Peter Klein |
I blogged a while back about crowdsourcing, in which individuals, typically amateurs, complete to supply inputs to large producers or distributors via the web. Crowdsourcing is often likened to distributed computing, an age-old (in computer terms, anyway) method of sharing computationally intensive tasks over many CPUs.
The best-known example of distributed computing is SETI@home, in which individuals donate their spare processing power to the search for extraterrestrial life. There’s a problem, however, as Lee Gomes tells us in today’s Wall Street Journal ($): high switching costs. SETI@home users get points for donating computer time and, like frequent flyers who stick to one airline to rack up miles, many refuse to switch to other, equally worthy distributed computing projects (the search for an Alzheimer’s cure, a difficult problem in theoretical physics, etc.). As a result, says Gomes, SETI@home “is to distributed computing what AARP is to social-security reform.”
Moral of the story: If crowdsourcing projects attract mainly hobbyists, participating for fun or to impress their (virtual) friends, expect lock-in and substantial first-mover advantages. If participants do it for the money, however, the crowdsourcing landscape may be much more competitive.