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The power of the ‘Crowd’

As he turned in an article to his editor at Wired magazine, writer Jeff Howe inadvertently coined the term that has now defined his career.

Howe was writing about how technology was revolutionizing content creation in fields such as music, photography, video and news. It was the biggest story he’d written thus far, but he was wrestling with how to describe it. “So I called my editor and said, ‘It’s almost like outsourcing to the crowd,’” said Howe, a new assistant professor in Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

While Howe was mocking the tech-speak that has dominated Silicon Valley for years, his suggestion took on a life of its own. His editor used the term “crowdsourcing” to sell the story to Wired’s editor-in-chief, and later the story became a front-page feature and spawned Howe’s subsequent book, “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business.”

“We’re talking about a radical change — the economy is catching up to the fact of our globally-connected world, and we’re just now getting our first business model that will be native to our business age,” Howe said. “The Industrial Age segued into the Information Era in the ’60s and ’70s, and we’ve still been using business conventions and practices that date back to the nineteenth century.”

Howe studied as a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism before moving to Northeastern, where he plans to continue studying crowdsourcing from a more scholarly, academic perspective. When discussing the idea of crowdsourcing in relation to news and journalism, Howe frequently gets pushback from supporters of traditional models, but he argues that crowdsourcing benefits the whole industry.

“Any time you open up an industry to diverse voices, you make it stronger,” Howe said. “I think it’s so valuable, even if it’s just things like CNN and its iReport feature, which collects and broadcasts user-generated video reports, or the recent gathering of information and photos during Hurricane Irene.”

Much of journalism, Howe said, involves reporters gathering and distributing basic information that could be collected by nearly anyone. A newsgathering approach based on the crowd, he argues, allows journalists to spend more time on complicated stories.

“Are we as a society really suffering if we let that aspect of journalism go the way of the dinosaur? I don’t think so,” Howe said. “This frees up journalists to do cooler, more important stuff in terms of analysis, feature news and holding the feet of authorities to the fire.”

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