Christian Montoya


I hold the following to be an absolute truth:

If I gave you a bucket and told you to sit on a beach and count grains of sand, one by one, all day long, you would do it. You would do it because it's fun. You might insist that I'm wrong, but I know I'm right because millions of people do this every day. Not only are people willing to do this, but many businesses and entrepreneurs are driving their revenue models on making people count sand. It's happening so much that I needed to coin a term to describe it, especially since I would like an easy way to describe to people what I do for a living. I came up with "Crowdherding."

I needed a picture of a dumb kid with a bucket and sand. Thanks!

Crowdherding is a lot like Crowdsourcing, which Wikipedia, in its infinite wisdom, describes as:

"a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, refine an algorithm or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data"

Wikipedia's wisdom doesn't stop there. It also says:

"The term has become popular with business authors and journalists as shorthand for the trend of leveraging the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies to achieve business goals. However, both the term and its underlying business models have attracted controversy and criticism."

I think this is simple enough. Crowdsourcing is cool when you think about all the ways in which it takes place:

  • Wikipedia never has to buy any content. All the information within is generated by users, and the system works in such a way so as to ensure a manageable level of accuracy.
  • Kongregate's library of games is made up of Flash games that have been submitted by outside developers, running on a platform that allows those games to tie into the site. Kongregate splits revenue with these developers, and in return Kongregate gets one of the most engaging and feature-packed online gaming sites.
  • Amazon doesn't pay people to write reviews. It encourages users to submit reviews and aggregates them, and then encourages users to rate those reviews to ensure a reasonable level of quality. That's crowdsourcing twice.

The way I see it, all forms of Crowdsourcing have one thing in common: the members of the crowd are building something valuable. Crowdherding, which I believe happens much more often, does not have this quality. I would describe Crowdherding to be:

"the act of convincing a group of people to perform a rote task, akin to sitting on a beach all day and counting sand, usually through various incentives, whether real or virtual"

Some examples:

  • In RPGs, players often refer to "grinding," which is the task of continuously fighting monsters to raise their avatar's level, or continuously searching for items to complete quests. They call it grinding because it's a lot like grinding an axe on a wheel; one simple task has to be done continuously to make the axe sharp, and until it has been done for long enough, the person grinding the axe is really bored. A Ragnarok player once told me that it would take him ~250 hours to get his character from level 98 to 99, where the process involves fighting tons of monsters and nothing else. He did it.
  • FreeRice has users play a vocabulary game; for each word a user gets correct, 20 grains of rice are donated to the UN World Food Program. In the month of May, over 4 billion grains of rice were donated. The rice is paid for by the ads that appear on the bottom of the screen. The website operator claims to not take any profit.
  • The Facebook game Friends For Sale! awards you $10,000 of in-game currency for visiting the application at least once in a 4 hour period. This is essential to the developers because it keeps the daily numbers up and it is enticing to the users because money is necessary to buy friends in the game. In the past month, Friends For Sale! was the #2 most popular game on Facebook, after OWNED!, another game that follows the exact same principles.

As mentioned before, in all examples of Crowdherding, the members of the crowd are not building anything. They are not generating content. They are simply gaining incentives, whether that be points for their avatar, virtual currency, or a sense of well-doing for helping the needy. In all cases, the actual mechanics of what the user is doing can be described as nothing more than clicking (on a link, or a button, or an on-screen enemy). If you think about it, Crowdherding has been around for a long time. Think of any case where users are being driven like sheep to do a simple task that generates revenue for someone else, and you have an example of Crowdherding. While it sounds bad, I wouldn't think of it as good or bad. It's using psychology to generate revenue from user activity. It's getting people to look at your webpage instead of someone else's. It's a concept you have to understand if you want to be successful in this ad-driven industry. And in the case of Free Rice, that herding leads to purely humanitarian goals.

So let me describe what makes successful Crowdherding:

  • Offering valuable incentives. This value can be virtual, in which case the actual cost might be much lower. A virtual incentive might be a cartoon depiction of a hat which your avatar can wear inside a game. This hat only costs as much as a one-time fee charged by the artist who made it, so once it has convinced a few certain number of people to generate a certain amount of ad revenue through their activity, it has paid itself off. A service that uses both real and virtual incentives is Live Search Club.
  • Making the process of counting sand engaging. Even though the user maybe be performing some rote task, they are more likely to do it if it feels fun. This may involve watching a funny video or playing an engaging game.
  • Making the process of counting sand & gaining incentives somewhat difficult. People who play RPGs may complain about grind when they encounter it, but the fact is that the best online RPGs all have it. This is because grind is hard, demanding a serious time commitment from the user, and when users make it through that grind and gain their reward, they feel a sense of accomplishment that they wouldn't have if they had received the reward quickly. This, in turn, inflates the value of the incentives, making them even more desirable to users (and building a vicious cycle). Also, the more a user invests in a game, the more they feel attached to that game and are reluctant to give up playing it.

That's Crowdherding as best as I can explain it. Hopefully now you have some insight into my line of work. Food for thought: is Crowdsourcing a subset of Crowdherding, or are they distinct practices, or what?

Thank you for reading • Published on June 9th, 2008 • Please take a moment to share this with your friends