Spec work isn’t crowdsourcing

The term “crowdsourcing” is being borrowed by services that solicit design work “on spec”. Design services like CrowdSpring and 99 designs solicit designers for “contests” where everyone does the work for the client, but only one will get paid.

The familiar use of “crowdsourcing” is for services where people contribute freely to something of mutual benefit – wikipedia, a support FAQ, an open source project, tips for a an investigative story. In some uses of crowdsourcing, there is a commercial provider that aggregates the benefit of free labor – technology companies gain when their customers add FAQ entries, and a newspaper or commercial blog benefits when readers submit tips for a published story. But in all of these uses, everyone who contributes benefits too.

With spec work contests, many people do contract design work for no charge and only one of them gets paid. Spec work has long been common during recessions. More buyers are looking to save money, and more contractors are underemployed and willing to put in time doing work that they may not get paid for. These services take this pattern to the extreme by soliciting dozens or hundreds of free contributions. It’s unpaid labor plus a lottery ticket.

Call it unethical, call it lottery labor, but don’t call it crowdsourcing. And if this practice does become called crowdsourcing, we need another sort of term for freely contributed work that benefits everyone doing the contributing.

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