The Billion Amateurs

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov 2007

I log on to the Internet from my little attic office, and I’m connected to the world. I have the conflicting feelings of being alone and at the same time being part of the largest crowd ever assembled. There are a billion people out there on the net with me.

The news is always full of the spammers, the predators, the evil hackers, and the other miscreants that would be found in any such crowd. That’s the way news works – you only hear about the bad stuff, but today I want to talk about the wonders and the enormous potential of this congregation of amateurs. I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and, yes, the generosity that has been unleashed by the social embrace of the infrastructure that we technologists created originally to connect our computers.

I love to hear from people who have found something on the web that I’ve provided. It gives me an almost unique experience of reaching across oceans to bestow a small gift on a stranger, and in the process that stranger and I lose our facelessness within the crowd. On the Internet there is an irresistible urge to contribute.

There are many examples today of “business” models that are enabled by this urge to generosity. I put “business” in quotes, because many of these models are themselves acts of charity. Others make money only as an afterthought. I recently asked the founder of a site that enables people to subtitle videos in other languages what his business model was. He replied in one word: “Ubiquity.”

In the current list of the 20 most popular web sites half of the sites have essentially all of their content provided free by amateurs -- Myspace, YouTube, Facebook, eBay, Craigslist, Wikipedia,, Internet Movie Database, Photobucket, and Flickr. All of these are examples of what Tim O’Reilly has termed an “architecture of participation.” Build it and they will come.

I am entranced by the vision, for example, of Jimmy Wales in creating Wikipedia. I just can’t imagine myself deciding to create my own encyclopedia, and telling people that I don’t intend to write anything myself, but just to let anyone come and create entries. People would tell me I was crazy. Yet it worked so well that Wikipedia is among the most popular sites in practically every nation on earth. You don’t need to pay people to write articles. “Hey look! That’s my article on Wikipedia!” The thrill and satisfaction of contributing is a powerful motivator by itself.

I imagine the legion of paid professionals in the traditional encyclopedia world looking skeptically at this endeavor. “Amateurs! What do they know?” Well, when there are a billion of them, they know pretty much everything. Of course, there are a lot of unpaid professionals out there too.

Meanwhile, those billion amateurs are out there taking pictures of everything on the planet and placing the images on Flickr and other sites. There are literally thousands upon thousands of pictures of every known place, taken from all angles and under all lighting conditions. Researchers are now using those pictures to create 3D images and panoramic vistas.

And those amateurs are writing blogs – an estimated 80 million of them. Who reads them all, I wonder? But never mind – what a treasure trove of living news, feelings, observations, and information! Again, researchers are pawing through the rubbish, looking for nuggets with such tools as sentiment analysis, asking questions like “Is the world relatively happy today?” The billion amateurs know the answer, and they have found their voice.

There is no lack of free labor if the smallest incentive is offered. I’ve heard it said that last year people spent 9 billion hours playing solitaire on computers. I have no idea where such a number comes from, but we’d all agree that it’s bound to be large. In contrast, it is said that it only required 20 million hours of human labor to build the Panama Canal. So if you could offer people a game that incidentally collected information, well you’re in business, so to speak. One such game, ESP, where contestants suggest captions for pictures that they believe will agree with captions submitted by an unknown partner, is being used to caption pictures on the web – a job that computers are not yet capable of doing.

The Iowa Electronic Markets provide a quantitative proof of what has become known as “the wisdom of crowds” – the idea that everybody put together in a market is smarter than any one individual. There you can invest in political futures, and the vibrant market of amateurs has proven a better predictor than the polls run ever so scientifically by professionals.

Just think – a billion people out there willing to work for nothing but a little credit! Let the business models flow!

Robert Lucky