Doctoral Thesis: Royal College of Art, Department for Critical Writing in Art & Design, 2015.
Download from the library of the RCA.

The Design of Creative Crowdwork: From Tools for Empowerment to Platform Capitalism

The thesis investigates the methods used in the contemporary crowdsourcing of creative crowdwork and in particular the succession of conflicting ideas and concepts that led up to the development of dedicated, profit-oriented, online platforms for the outsourcing of cognitive tasks and creative labour to a large and unspecified group of people via open calls on the internet.

It traces the historic trajectory of the notion of the crowd as well as the development of technologies for online collaboration, with a focus on the accompanying narratives in the form of a discourse analysis. One focus of the thesis is the clash between the narrative of the empowerment of the individual user through digital tools and the reinvention of the concept of the crowd as a way to refer to users of online platforms in their aggregate form. The thesis argues, that the revivification of the notion of the crowd is indicative of a power shift that has weakened the individual user and empowered the commercial platform providers who, in turn, take unfair advantage of their newly gained power.

The thesis examines the workings and the rhetoric of these platforms by comparing the way they address the masses today with historic notions of the crowd, formed by authors like Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti. Today’s practice of crowdwork is also juxtaposed with older, arguably more humanist, visions of distributed online collaboration, collective intelligence, free software and commons-based peer production. The study is a history of ideas, taking some of the utopian concepts of early online history as a vantage point from which to view current and, at times, dystopian applications of crowdsourced creative labour online. The goal is to better understand the social mechanisms employed by the platforms to motivate and control the crowds, and to uncover the parameters that define their structure and the scope for their potential redesign.

At its core, the thesis offers a comparison of Amazon Mechanical Turk (2005), the most prominent and infamous example for so-called microtasking or cognitive piecework, with the design of platforms for contest-based creative crowdwork, in particular with Jovoto (2007) and 99designs (2008). The crowdsourcing of design work is organised decidedly differently to other forms of digital labour and the question is why should that be so? What does this tell about changing faces of design as a practice and what are its effects on design as a profession? However, the thesis is not just about the crowdsourcing of design work, but especially about the design of crowdsourcing as a system. It is about the ethics of these human-made, contingent social systems that are promoted as the future of work. The overarching research question is: can crowdsourcing be designed in a way that is fair and sustainable to all stakeholders?

The analysis is based on an extensive study of literature from Design Studies, Media and Culture Studies, Business Studies and Human-Computer Interaction, combined with participant observation within several crowdsourcing platforms for design and a series of interviews with different stakeholders.

Schmidt_Thesis_Printed_webMore research related links:

Academic Paper on Crowdwork: For a Few Dollars More

Video of a talk that I gave about my work at re:publica 2014.

Video recording of a hearing on digital labour at the Deutsche Bundestag – “Ausschuss Digitale Agenda” September 2015.

German statement and questions I answerd in my role as expert for the Deutsche Bundestag concerning digital labour in September 2015.