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Is Social Media Crowdsourcing Making Us Lazy?

August 11, 2009

LAF Note: This is a guest blog post by Danny Brown. You can read more about Danny at the bottom of the post.

You’ve become lazy. You’re no longer smart. You’re a shadow of the clever person you really could be. Don’t feel bad – I am too. We all are. We used to be questioning; now we just ask questions. 

Blame social media. Actually, don’t – blame social media and crowdsourcing. Penned by Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired Magazine article, crowdsourcing does exactly what it says on the tin – allows us to source a crowd for an answer. 

Want to know where the best steakhouse in Waco is? Ask Twitter. Need to find a kid-friendly bar for your next day out? Update your Facebook status. Want to find out if G.I. Joe blows? Start a conversation on Friendfeed. 

Useful? Yes. Informative? Yes. Necessary? Not always. Encourages laziness? Most definitely. 3675430399_f94cb7e6c2

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned research? Taking the time to satisfy our curiosity by looking up information ourselves? Have we really got to the stage where we’re so dependent on others that we’re collectively wasting our intelligence? 

At school, we’re given textbooks to help us learn what we need to know. We can also access libraries, Google (man how I wish I had that available when I was at school!) and numerous other resources. A world of knowledge is at our fingertips. 

Yet increasingly we’re asking for others to use their fingertips instead. Who does this benefit? 

Do we really learn more by asking someone else to find out something for us? Does our memory retain facts and information if it’s fed to us, or if we hold the spoon ourselves? 

There’s no denying that crowdsourcing can offer a valuable and beneficial option for gathering information or opinions on any given topic. Yet just because something is there doesn’t mean it needs to always be used. 

Instead of crowdsourcing your next question, try this: 

  • Google it. There’s a reason why Google is the number one search engine – people use it to search for things. Try it – it’s fun.
  • Use on online encyclopedia. The website Encyclopedia.com gathers information from 49 encyclopedias and 73 dictionaries and thesauruses. There’s not a lot that won’t be there.
  • Try a relevant resource. If it’s a sports question, try a sports trivia site. If it’s an entertainment question, try an entertainment site. And so on… 

Don’t get me wrong. I crowdsource just like anyone else does. But it’s usually for opinion as opposed to information, or for information that I’ve searched for and just can’t find anywhere (yes, even Google isn’t all-powerful). 

Human beings are pretty clever by nature. Can we work on keeping it that way? 

*Image is copyright of Creative Commons.

dannyavatar Danny Brown provides business branding and emerging media consultancy services to the consumer  and commercial markets. He is also founder of the 12for12k Challenge, a unique charity project using  social media to change the lives of millions in 2009. 

 You can read more from Danny at his emerging media and branding blog, or connect with him  on Twitter.

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44 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2009 7:58 am

    Absolutely. Twitter has become the new Google. It’s faster, more customized and extremely succinct. However, we are continuing to lose out on more nuanced parts of researching our questions.

    Stop being lazy crowdsourcing people. I know that I am extremely lazy when it comes to this (and do about half my learning via Twitter these days).

  2. August 11, 2009 8:00 am

    I wonder if it’s going to have an impact on PR professionals and the field as a whole. Research skills are imperative when it comes to the profession. Is it kind of like when Google hit, and everyone freaked out on the authenticity and laziness of it?

  3. August 11, 2009 8:10 am

    I agree, but I think it depends on the question: if I want to find a cool restaurant in NYC, I’d go to Twitter first, get a few suggestions, and then look into them further. Restaurants or places to go can be hit or miss, and I trust (most) of my twitter followers to suggest some good places so I have a starting point.

    • August 11, 2009 8:56 am

      That’s definitely where crowdsourcing shines, Sheema. If I’m going out for the evening, I’d rather put my trust in someone’s opinion who lives there (and whose opinion I value and trust) than a reviewer whose paid to check a place out, so has no connect to me.

      Of course, I’ll still Google other opinions and see what the consensus is overall 🙂

  4. August 11, 2009 8:13 am

    Sheema – You’re right, but what happened to just trying a place out? Be a trendsetter. I think it’s ok to ask every once and awhile, but maybe trying new things for yourself will help you not to be stuck in that mentality.

  5. judith permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:14 am

    wow. if this post represents the majority (and im inclined to think that it does) then im the odd woman out. i dont know if its a force of habit, but i still use google for research or answers. then again, there are times when i still use actual print encyclopedias.
    i like to search in the “old fashioned” way because that way i can determine the validity of the source of information. i can also read various takes on the same topic – so im more informed.
    as much as i love my twitter friends, you just never know where they get their information from, or if its correct.

    • August 11, 2009 8:16 am

      Judith – It’s funny, because I remember when Google became popular and people questioned the validity of it. I think you need a couple of sources to really understand the research. Twitter is a great tool for communication, but has it made us naive in trusting?

  6. August 11, 2009 8:15 am

    Wow. Mr. Brown does it again. Thanks to him and to you Lauren for asking him to write this post. As a research pro for a PR firm myself, I’d like to weigh in on the above commentary. I’d never, and I think I can say that sincerely, “crowdsource” a question without doing a heavy bit of research myself. Sure, Twitter/social networks are the easy way out, but anyone with half a brain and the ability to utilize boolean logic can use Google just the same. Not to mention the feeling you have when you come up with the solution on YOUR own.

    However, I’m never going to begrudge someone for seeking the safety of numbers. There are times when we are stumped and need to reach out for assistance. Twitter (or other social networks) provide us that outlet. Does that make me lazy? Nah, especially if I’ve exhausted all other angles available to me/us.

    • August 11, 2009 8:19 am

      Chuck – Think we can use Twitter to ask for research assistance – ie. a contact, rather than just an answer? An in-person encyclopedia, if you will. Outreaching for an expert in the field is crucial to any research.

      • August 11, 2009 9:18 am

        That’s a great idea and perfect for crowdsourcing, Lauren – if someone has an “in” to a name that you need to contact, it makes sense to ask (nicely) if they can help connect you. Kinda like LinkedIn without the false “I know so-and-so through…” approach 😉

  7. jaykeith permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:19 am

    I agree with Danny, crowdsourcing is making is all lazier, but it’s also doing something else that’s not all that great: spreading potentially false information rapidly. I think that the problem with going to Twitter and other social media sites to find “facts” is a very risky proposition, especially if it’s something work related. If it turns out to be wrong, and someone asks where you found out what you relayed (which was also wrong), what are you going to say, “I heard it on Twitter.” Even a trusted friend might not have it right, but an encyclopedia or legitimate website should. At least your odds are better, and you can source it.

    Doing your own research is truly important, as is sourcing your facts and even getting two or more sources to confirm the facts. Too often that doesn’t happen on Twitter, where misinformation can be spread very quickly, and once it does, it’s tough to get the genie back in the bottle. How often do you hear the phrase “I think it was…..” or something similar?

    To Danny’s point, if you’re looking for an opinion, like if GI Joe sucks, then that’s something that social media can absolutely be helpful for, because there’s no consequences if the opinion doesn’t match with yours. But if you get the wrong information via Twitter, from either a trusted or non trusted source, that could spell problems for you down the line, especially if you’re researching something that needs to be accurate.

    Finally, the skill of researching is something that everyone should have, either online or in libraries, etc. Having someone walk you through it and do the work for you won’t yield results that are nearly as refined or accurate, so getting your hands dirty and doing it yourself is always a good idea.

    • August 11, 2009 9:01 am

      Couldn’t agree more, Jay – that, more than anything, is one of the key problems with crowdsourcing (or using the likes of Twitter as your news aggregator). We’ve all seen the false reports of celebrity deaths, companies going bust (or not), mergers, etc, all of which have turned out to be false later.

      Then look at the effect the wrong information from a CNN citizen journalist had on Apple when she reported Steve Jobs had had a heart attack. Share prices fell, the web was ablaze with rumor – all incorrect.

      We need to be accountable for the information we process and share – if I’m going to share something on Twitter or elsewhere, I want to make sure I’m not misleading folks before I share it. These are my “friends”, and you wouldn’t want to “lie” to your friends, would you?

      • August 11, 2009 10:27 am

        While I cannot argue that the exponential spread of misinformation is a good thing, I think it almost enhances the research experience (if handled properly). The idea of crowdsourcing is increasingly valuable for similar reasons, in my opinion. One of my favorite concepts I learned in college was the “marketplace of ideas.” If I’m remembering correctly, the theory stemmed from John Milton’s freedom of expression, and the idea is that the presence of falsity in a marketplace enhances the truth. The inclusion of false ideas helps us to better understand what is true, and even if false information is circulate, we will be able to know the truth.

        I agree that the use of crowdsourcing can lead to laziness, but only when it is used as the sole source of information. For trivial things like finding a good restaurant, I think it’s not too important to dig much deeper. However, for almost anything else, crowdsourcing can be an incredible source of ideas all of which should be explored further.

        Back the original point, though. I think the problem does not lie with the availability of false information, but the lack of reasoning and consideration applied to this information. There has always been bad information, and while it is now much easier to come by, I think that our laziness is the bigger problem. So, I guess I am agreeing with you? Our reasoning and ability to fact-check needs to evolve as quickly as the ability of incorrect information to spread.

        Does that make any sense?

      • August 11, 2009 10:46 am

        While I can see what you’re saying, Rebecca, I’m not sure if I’d agree that it’s better to have false information just to enhance the “real” information.

        If a company goes bust because of false information and rumors, or a person’s emotions are put through hell because of lazy reporting/sharing online, surely that has to be worse than “well it helps us learn for next time”? While getting something wrong can definitely help us learn, I think it needs to be tempered with what the result is of the initial false information.

  8. jenniewhite permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:19 am

    When it comes to retaining information I find that I can pull up tweets with all sorts of random facts. I don’t know if it’s because they’re so condensed and thus easy to remember or if it’s just the way my brain functions. I do agree with us becoming lazy with Twitter, my brain might be retaining information, but it sure isn’t working too hard to get that information.

  9. Courtney permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:20 am

    I think it has definitely made us lazy and will continue to have an enomorous impact on professions such as PR and journalism. I find out more via Twitter than any other source. It’s become a part of my daily routine. I haven’t completely relied on Twitter as a search engine yet though. I’m still a Googler. 🙂

  10. August 11, 2009 8:21 am

    The word ‘lazy’ is not something I like to associate myself with, but the way you put it just now….sigh…makes me feel like a ‘lazy slob’….it’s the convenience factor, I s’pose….or at least that what’s I’m telling myself.

    When Twitter went down, I, along with other buddies like Shonali Burke (@shonali), got into a little bit of a panic…kind of embarassing when you consider the ‘other’ mediums of communication (i.e. email, phone, etc.)…now, to be serious, I *did not* seriously go into lockdown mode; however, it did make me look at trying to make a stronger effort to try ‘other’ ways to communicate.

    So, here’s to being less of a ‘lazy’ person and being much more of, as Danny puts it, a clever human being and rely a little less on crowdsourcing.

  11. August 11, 2009 8:22 am

    @Lauren – might be an interesting use of Twitter, actually. There are other sites – like knowitnow.org (I’m not affiliated with them by the way) that are part of the library networks that can often offer more research assistance than anyone on Twitter could ever comprehend.

  12. August 11, 2009 8:22 am

    I network on various sites (twitter, plurk, facebook, plus a few forums), but have never used them to ‘search’ for information. Instead, as you say, I promote the use of search engines: I’m the first to say “Google It!”, particularly when explaining to the person would take too long.
    As an artist teaching myself photoshop, I don’t use the internet to ask the questions, I seek and find the answer, then teach myself or study the facts. There is much to be learnt from seeking what you need rather than relying on others to do the hard-yards on your behalf.
    So I agree with you, people are often lazy and rely far too much on others having all the answers.

  13. August 11, 2009 8:27 am

    Lauren- just trying a place out is fine, but sometimes its nice to get a few suggestions, especially if you’re only there for a limited amount of time. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll even take the suggestions- its just nice to have a starting point sometimes.

  14. August 11, 2009 8:28 am

    Sheema – I like it! 🙂 Just trying to play devil’s aadvocate a bit. I really value your opinion and think you make great points.

  15. August 11, 2009 8:32 am

    You are right, Danny – and I’ve forced myself not to fall into that pool. I’m a Googler at heart, whether I need to find information myself or for other people (who are usually too lazy to find it themselves lol). I make the effort to find out for myself and if I’m still stuck, I then reach out to my community of smart folks on Twitter or Facebook and ask them.

    A positive about crowdsourcing though, Danny, is you’re able to interact with a person (or a few) directly and work together on solving a problem you may have. I’ve had this happen before with a new music keyboard I got and connecting it to my Macbook. I reached out on Twitter and found a guy who has the same exact setup and told me what I needed and how I should do it. I did the research before hand and didn’t find a definite answer, so I trusted that someone within my network had the expertise to guide me. I may not know every single one of my 4k+ followers, but I’m usually very confident in the advice and help I get from any one of those people.

    There are pros and cons but it’s all a matter of how YOU look to use that power – for the quick hit or to gain some knowledge in the process.

    • August 11, 2009 9:03 am

      And that’s definitely where crowdsourcing has value, Sonny – opinion and knowledge. It’s instant and you’re connected to like-minded folks who genuinely want to help. It’s when it’s used for research and the facts aren’t quantified that I think it falls into dangerous territory.

  16. August 11, 2009 8:38 am

    I’m the first to admit I crowdsource (especially via Twitter). I don’t start there, I end there. After exhausing Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and lots of other sources and coming up with a possible answer I like to tap Twitter to see what other people think of that same answer.

    As one who lives for research, makes a living off of SEO and SEM, and doesn’t trust search engine results I tend to go overboard when researching a topic. I look to Twitter, FB, LI to get additional opinions and feedback on the results I find.

    As with all research, you have to realize that any feedback you get are simply that person’s opinion. Unless they are the absolute authority on a subject (and were found via my initial research) I tend to take everything with a grain of salt.

    Think about it – do you really believe that if you fork over $XXX you’ll get millions of followers, a first-place google ranking, lose 100 lbs and grow 6″? These have all been offered as feedback to questions I’ve had and we know how valid these are! Reality check!

    • August 11, 2009 9:05 am

      I like that, Heather – “It doesn;t start there, it ends there.” That’s always the best way for any type of research, exhaust all avenues relevant to the importance. You wouldn’t go to a library and get all your facts from the first book you pull out on a given topic (at least, not usually). It’s always great to get as many views as possible ona topic, so you can make your own opinion from both sides of any coin.

  17. August 11, 2009 8:42 am

    I guess I am lucky (or unlucky as the view may be) as a great deal of the Architectural & Interior Design research I still do is from books and print publications (some are still not online). Google is of course invaluable for product research and so far, though I might consider looking for a product via twitter I have not asked for design advice! But after a tweet from @amyafrica in which she suggested I add “action directives ” to my website…… coming soon under the category of cloud sourcing research 🙂

    • August 11, 2009 9:07 am

      That makes me think of another great resource, Caroline – fiche files in libraries. What better way to get the facts than from something that was written or photographed on that particular day in history? 🙂

      • August 11, 2009 10:11 am

        You are going to start dating all of us and I bet many people don’t know what fiche files are 🙂 I can just see it in the future an “online” History course on how to use the Oxford dictionary, a Rand McNally atlas, Lippencott Gazetteer and of course fiche files ! Has Google really made our lives so much simpler?

  18. August 11, 2009 8:52 am

    I think a main issue when you crowdsource is that the ideas and suggestions you receive will be biased based on how large the community is and who is in that community and their experiences.

    If people follow other people who are similar to themselves or share similar interests, expect an opinion that will be in line with their own interests. If they’re looking for an opinion on something they may like, perhaps a restaurant, this may work. But when looking for a more in-depth analysis on the general public, equating a community with the public is risky.

  19. August 11, 2009 8:58 am

    I sincerely hope that we don’t all become a bunch of robots, incapable of original thought. I do ask questions on Twitter (and its brethren in social media), but I tend to do so just to gauge opinion; to see what others think. I think that the answers complement my other research very well (knowing what the “masses” think can be extremely enlightening). Before the advent of social networking, if I was in an unfamiliar city and wanted to know of a good restaurant, I’d simply call a friend whom I know had been there. If there’s a movie in which I’m interested , I’ll ask friends who’ve seen it what they thought. Is this really so different than putting these questions out there on social media sites? I don’t think so.

    People who want to take the easy way out will always do it, whether that means becoming a lemming on Twitter and taking all of the information thereon as fact, or opting to see a movie rather than reading a great book. People who genuinely want to learn and do the work will continue to do so and will be richer for it. Using social media sites doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to lose the ability to think for themselves (at least I hope not!) Cheers, Danny (and thanks, Lauren, for having the good Mr. Brown over to share his thoughts)!

    • August 11, 2009 9:12 am

      I wonder if crowdsourcing (or over-reliance on crowdsourcing) will tip any undecided? Say you’re neither an avid researcher nor a “lazy one” – if socnets make it easier to ask for a fact, will these undecided sway to the quick fix approach as opposed to fleshing it out with facts afterward? There does seem to be a gradual increase in the amount of info taken as gospel from social sites, without the follow-up afterward.

      I’m waiting on the big-name blogger using information he/she sourced from Twitter or Friendfeed, writing a controversial blog piece, then finding out that all the information was incorrect. That would be interesting to see the reaction… 😉

  20. August 11, 2009 10:39 am

    GREAT post Melissa. So right there will always be those that think what they see on Twitter or similar is so, just as in the past there were those that read it in the Newspaper or on TV & therefore it had to be true:-) Given this SCARY, what you say Danny about the perpetration of misinformation…. once it’s out there Google never forgets!

  21. August 11, 2009 11:00 am

    True? Yes? Inevitable? Yes as well. Humans are lazy. If we can get things done while doing less, we’re going to. Ever see Wally? (haha I’ve been wanting to write a post on that)

    The annoying part is when its just as easy, if not easier to type it in to google and get the answer, but people ask on twitter anyway. (and I’ve been guilty of this before). I don’t think it’s even a lazy thing by that point…I think its more of a comfortableness thing. We’ve become so comfortable on twitter, that it’s our go-to source for any and all information.

    On a side note, it’s crazy that we’re talking about google and online encyclopedias as the NON-lazy method. My old social studies teacher would keel over if she knew this was the case.

    Looking forward to the day when asking on twitter is the non-lazy method (=

    @DavidSpinks

    • August 11, 2009 11:54 am

      Pretty sure that my old social studies teacher would have a heart attack too, D. She hated when we wanted to use online sources. I still remember going to the library to look at the encyclopedias. We could only have one online source, and 4 had to be of the printed variety. It was like this in most of my classes until I got to college.

  22. August 11, 2009 11:37 am

    I think the idea of crowdsourcing is that you can cast a net to a broader audience for thoughts, opinions and ideas. It quickly gives us a wider range of feedback, gives us new ways to look at complex problems and drives innovation.

    Getting something done faster better and more efficiently isn’t lazy, it’s smart. Lazy would be finding out about a new restaurant through Facebook, but still going to the place down the street. …Or seeing something on Twitter and writing an article about it, without doing the necessary fact-checking (which good journalists do regardless of the new/old-media source).

    Also: My company has a crowdsourcing platform, so I like to obsessively talk about crowdsourcing…but it is relatively new and no one has hit the perfect formula yet. We know that the wisdom of crowds really shine when you take a very diverse group of minds and apply those minds to problem (think: Innocentive). That doesn’t mean asking your friends on Twitter where you should eat dinner is a bad thing, it just means it might not be the perfect example of crowdsourcing 🙂

    • August 11, 2009 11:52 am

      Great points Sarah. My question always comes back to the validity of the information – how do we know it’s correct? The quickness is appealing, but as always, we need to take the time to understand projects. So how do we combat that?

      • August 11, 2009 12:12 pm

        Hmm…

        Let’s say you are looking for the best new restaurant in town – basically, local opinions – I guess there is no right or wrong answer, they are all valid. However, the more people you ask, the more you’ll be able to see a trend.

        Another example – American Idol. Their goal is to sell albums. Does the crowd select the BEST singer of each competition? Does it matter? By the end of each season, American Idol knows who the most popular singer is. This is a great example of the experts not necessarily agreeing with the crowd. It is also a great example of how crowdsourcing can make ridiculous amounts of money!

        Another example – Chemists couldn’t figure out how to get more fluoride into toothpaste. They put a call out to a crowd of diverse scientists and a physicist told them how to easily solve the problem. A great example of what happens when you ask a diverse crowd.

        The crowd can nail questions with definitive answers, for example “how many jelly beans are in that jar.” The crowd is also helpful to source different methods of looking at a problem, brand or idea.

        I think reading something on Twitter and believing it to be true is something completely separate from crowdsourcing. It’s like believing everything you hear, that’s just silly!

        Aside: this is one of the most interesting discussions I’ve read online in a while. Kudos for keeping it on-topic and relevant!

    • August 11, 2009 12:10 pm

      I think that’s the difference between crowdsourcing and research, Sarah. Crowdsourcing is ideal for asking opinion or getting help on something – but the moment it veers from that and is used as the basis for research (without following up on that information), it becomes lazy, not smart. 😉

  23. August 11, 2009 1:43 pm

    I agree with Sarah. I see research in 2 different ways: (1) Fact-based and (2) Opinion-based.

    If I want a recommendation for a good restaurant while I am visiting Boston, I am going to ask those who follow me on Twitter. If I am trying to find statistics on use of online video, I am going to go to Google and find a resource that has a good reputation for accurate and sound statistics. Ideally, more than one.

    I am often surprised to see the questions people ask on Twitter that they could easily answer with a single Google search. For instance, someone Tweeted a question last week asking about a song in a particular TV commercial. They knew the name of the product and the main lyrics for the song. Why on earth would someone Tweet that question? Granted, this is a minor offsense compared to those who are doing hardcore research, but it still underlines your point.

    When it comes right down to it though, lazy people are lazy people. Social media just allows them to rely even more on others to do the work for them.

  24. teresabasich permalink
    August 11, 2009 2:24 pm

    David, it’s Wall-e. :-p

    Danny, good stuff! And thanks, Lauren, for having Danny as a guest blogger! The problem with crowdsourcing is that it’s leaned on heavily instead of being used as an add-on to the research we’ve already done. Great information can be gleaned from asking your followers or friends questions, but when that tactic becomes your only method of getting to Point B, you’re walking a tricky path.

    What happens to the kids coming up these days who have the opportunity to lean on technology so heavily? The Internet had definitely begun its communication take-over when I went to college, but I still had to go to the library and research the old-fashioned way. I still question Google when I research sometimes.

    I’ve got more thoughts on this, but they’re not fully formed yet. Great conversation, though, and I’m glad to see that most of us still believe in the power of doing a fair amount of research before turning to opinions.

  25. Kyle Johnson permalink
    August 15, 2009 1:53 pm

    I’m not sure if this comment, or something similar to it, has already been since I’m so late on this and there’s like 50 comments ahead of mine (didn’t have time to read them all), but crowdsourcing is not for every type of question, is it?

    I would not even dream of crowdsourcing serious topics like medical questions. Better to use crowdsourcing when you want to find a cool ice cream parlor or poppin’ bar in a certain area. Am I alone here?

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