Out of the office and into the crowd

'Crowdsourcing' helps businesses cut costs by putting tasks online where skilled freelancers working from home on their own computers can take up the challenge of doing the work that was once done by employees.

The 20th century witnessed the rise of the modern corporation, the business structure that discovered efficiency in scale and centralisation. As the century came to a close, skilled workers began to question whether corporate life had gone too far and whether the revolutionary changes ushered in by the internet could create a new model for working.

That model is still in its infancy, but it is growing fast, as skilled workers realise that the internet lets them work better, and happier, on their own than they would in the confines of a corporation. In a 2006 article in Wired magazine, the writer Jeff Howe coined the expression "crowdsourcing" to describe the way businesses could now outsource much of the work done by staff to the "crowd" of the internet.

From graphic design to copywriting, research and development as well as computer programming, the amount of work that can now be done via a computer anywhere on Earth continues to grow. By taking work from corporate departments and sending it to a flexible, low-cost global workforce, crowdsourcing embraces the "wisdom of crowds" notion that has become an internet mainstay. Prominent examples of the theory in action include Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, Firefox, the Web browser, and user-generated news aggregators such as Digg.com, which is one of the Web's 100 most popular sites.

In each of the preceding cases, the open-source model of allowing people to contribute to a project has created products that lead their markets. But equally important is that contributors were not paid for their efforts, at least not in cash. In most cases, the people working on open-source projects do so for the prestige, recognition or satisfaction that comes from making something great. Still, not all crowdsourcing is based on free labour. A number of online marketplaces have emerged for talented people to offer their services, and companies to tender work, and these marketplace are quickly becoming central to their industries.

Photography and graphic design are two industries that are being dramatically reshaped by new models of web-based freelancing. While professional photographers once charged upwards of US$400 (Dh1,469) for stock photographs of buildings or scenery, online marketplaces such as iStockphoto now sell similar products for less than $50, and often for less than $5. While iStockphoto, which was purchased by the industry giant Getty Images in 2006, was bad news for professional stock photographers, it has been a boon for freelance designers, marketers and boutique advertising agencies, each of which has seen its profitability shoot up as the cost of a key input to its product has fallen.

More than 60,000 graphic designers are now regular users of 99Designs, an online marketplace for design. Companies needing a new logo, website, corporate identity or business card submit their requirements to the site, along with a price tag for the work: from $200 upwards, occasionally exceeding $3,000. Poptent is looking to do to television commercials what 99Designs is doing to design, creating a community of videographers and creative producers that will bid for contracts to produce commercials, corporate videos and other types of video content.

The motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson and the consumer goods group Procter & Gamble are among the hundreds of businesses that have commissioned videos from the site. Recently, the ice cream seller Ben & Jerry's offered $7,000 to the maker of the best video that communicates the "fun, irreverent, authentic, wacky, playful and unique tone of the brand" to Canadian audiences. The winning piece will run in cinemas across Canada.

As the reach of the Web extends to almost all corners of the Earth, translation has become another important service offered by online marketplaces. Many Web publishers, wanting their content to be accessible to audiences in boom markets such as China, India and the Middle East, and a number of websites have emerged to connect them with freelance translators. One such market, Speak Lite, uses more than 3,000 online translators, paid at between 5 and 15 US cents per word, and will even offer users of Twitter, the microblogging service, a parallel foreign language account. For 25 cents per 140 character post, Speak Lite will translate each "tweet" and publish it on the second account.

One of the best known marketplaces for work is The Mechanical Turk, a system operated by Amazon, the online retailer. Named after a famous 18th century hoax that claimed to be an artificial intelligence machine, Amazon's service describes itself as "artificial artificial intelligence", letting users submit simple tasks that cannot be done by machine, to be completed by an online global workforce. Most online work marketplaces make the low cost of the labour on offer a key selling point, dropping the price of a stock photograph or eliminating a paid staff translator in favour of a per-word online contractor.

But for workers, the opportunity is not limited to offering services through the sites but in using each site as a virtual department of a one-person corporation. An entrepreneur with a good idea for a website can now outsource the copywriting, photography, translation, Web design, marketing and even financial management through such marketplaces. The availability of these services in-house was once a major competitive advantage of large corporations. Today, such services make the Web-based freelancer a formidable force.