The Crowdsourcing Milkshake

If you hadn't completely collapsed into a cake-induced holiday blackout at the turn of the year, you would have heard the stampeding digital hoofbeats heading in the direction of Quora, a startup service that matches people with questions to those with answers. Getting connected to Quora is (not accidentally) as easy as signing in through that mature crowd communication icon Twitter, and signing up for a few starter categories of interest. A user can be both questioner and respondent, creating what Quora's creators promised will be an unparalleled trove of crowd wisdom.

Predictably, the new service has engendered a backlash. The latest entry was this week's post on Techcrunch by Vivek Wadhwa called "Why I Don't Buy the Quora Hype," which questions the value of a service where the bona fides of the respondent can't be verified, leading to dilution of the value of the overall answers. If anyone can answer anything, how do you know what the best answers are? Similar to early concerns around Wikipedia, where entries could be added by anyone with access (though inaccuracies could in theory be caught by more skilled and skeptical editors), Wadhwa questions whether simply aggregating the answers of anyone who walks in the door counts as value.

Since James Surowiecki wrote the Wisdom of Crowds in 2004, social media enthusiasts have led marketers down the path of crowdsourcing as a new way forward in decision making. Countless corporate strategists and innovation teams have embraced the idea of asking the customer—embodied by the mythical "crowd"—what they want. And many times, this throwing open of the doors of R&D to the masses has been a substitute for more costly, and more considered, research into user wants and needs. Some great ideas have emerged, but many poor ones have come along as well. The almost seven years since the topic showed up on the business radar is a lifetime for many professionals, and it has become an accepted approach in many marketing plans.

What is emerging is an increasing difficulty in determining and validating expertise. Everyone's a chef, IT expert, copywriter, legislator, psychologist, referee and so on—that is the license that is being increasingly taken in Western society, where a full generation has grown up on reality TV, Web MD, "phone a friend" and so on.

As we come out of the worst part (so far as we know) of the recent economic downturn and count the cost of placing too many people in the role of expert, we may be seeing a turning back toward expertise and professional experience and skill as a source of value. We may be, to paraphrase Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood", drinking the last of the crowdsourcing "milkshake," realizing we have drained the masses dry of crowd wisdom for the moment, and need a way of filtering and judging what information has value.

Curation may be a middle step. Services such as Twitter have moved in this direction, suggesting whom to follow (presumably to increase the value of the experience for newer users wondering what all of the fuss is about), and the rapid rise of self-appointed curators such as Brainpicker, suggested content in apps such Instapaper, and other means of seeding curated content is a move away from the wide open field of pure crowdsourcing to a more selective way of sorting and wayfinding.

Beyond this, we expect to see the role of professional certification, specialist training, and the re-elevation of experts to grow again in importance over time. While almost everyone can play a doctor or chef or fashion designer on TV, or submit an answer over the Web, we see signals pointing to a return of specialist knowledge—ironically, partly driven by the growth of DIY itself. Some prosumers will persist and grow skills that rise from the pack, instead of the artificially flat playing field of mass expertise that has been promised. Quora might go this way too, opting for curation and then fee-based access to actual experts (this is just a guess-cast, not inside knowledge). For its sake, one hopes so.