MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

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George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Pages 16-17

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:

  • It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
  • Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
  • MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
  • And, of course, their main function is to educate

While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.

One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within  three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier [2000] wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).

However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves.  Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:

Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.

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Are You a Digital Drone?

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

Are You a Digital Drone?

Most people, especially young people, view the Internet as a “playground” and much of what they do their as fun; as an enjoyable leisure-time activity. There is, however, an alternative perspective on this. While you might not see yourself in this way, there are those in sociology and other fields who are coming to look at much of the Internet as a “factory” and what you do there as a form of labor or work (Scholz, 2013). From the latter perspective, you are seen as spending hours every day slaving away on such tasks as updating your Facebook page and checking recent additions to other’s pages or detailing your most recent fashion choices on Pinterest. To some observers, you seem to resmble worker-bees tirelessly toiling away at a never-ending series of tasks.

In addition to thinking about what you do on the Internet as a fun, leisure-time activity, you might also see it as a series of tasks that you perform largely for yourself. They therefore seem to stand in contrast to traditional occupational activities in which you are working for others and in the process enhancing their interests while gaining little for yourself except for the pay involved. However, many critics now view what you do on the computer as very much like such work since you are often working for others and in the process making them wealthier. However, one important difference is that you are not working for a wage; on the internet you are usually engaging in “free labor”; you are working for nothing (Terranova, 2013).

For example, when you write product reviews for Amazon.com you are enhancing the value of that site and the company; you are working for them and you are not being paid for that work. Similarly, you work for Facebook, again for nothing, when you indicate your various likes and dislikes, especially for commercial products. More troubling is the much greater amount of such work that you do even though you are unaware of doing it. Google, for example, uses various data-mining techniques (web crawlers, personalized algorithmns) to track all of many things that you click on (Ross, 2013). The results are used to determine the kinds of advertisements that appear on your computer screen. Google earns money, lots of money, from those advertisers.

To put it baldly, the value of these computer-based businesses is based largely on the “work”- those clicks and likes- that you do for them free of charge. In a capitalist world you ought to be paid by all of them, but of course you are not paid. From the perspective of the critics of capitalism, you are being exploited by firms such as Google and Facebook (Fuchs, 2013). In fact, you are being exploited more than the paid workers in the capitalist system. Most of them are being paid relatively little, but you are paid nothing at all. Low paid work often yields great profits, but work that is unpaid leads to an even higher rate of profit. As a result, Google earns huge profits with a comparatively small workforce and while Facebook is not yet nearly as profitable, it has a market value of $100 billion even though it only has about two thousand paid employees.

While you might regard sites such as Facebook and Pinterest as playgrounds, you might feel a bit different about them, and perhaps behave differently, if you also thought about them as modern-day factories and yourself as unpaid drones slaving away on those sites for the benefit of their corporate owners.

References

Fuchs, Christian. “Class and Exploitation on the Internet.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 211-224.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013.

Ross, Andrew. “In Search of the Lost Paycheck.” Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 13-32.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor”. In Trebor Scholz, ed. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. NY: Routledge, 2013: 33-57.

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

Blog

George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.

Using Games to Motivate Makers

Allowing and even using games to motivate paid workers has a long tradition (see Donald Roy’s [1960] famous paper on “banana time”). Such games are used to motivate poorly paid workers to continue to work in monotonous jobs. Makers generally do not perform what they consider to be monotonous work and they are not poorly paid- in the main they are paid nothing at all. While most seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from what they do, the capitalist organizations for which they labor as part of the long tail of talent still feel the need to motivate them in various ways, including through the use of games. It is important that organizations keep makers, with their gift of free labor, happy.

For example, Quirky is a web-based company that uses the crowd of makers to “develop better products” (179) and based on these contributions it puts two new products a week into production. Each new Quirky product involves inputs from hundreds of makers. Unlike many other similar systems, the inventor might earn thousands of dollars. Furthermore, everyone involved gets paid although in most cases “it’s just pennies” (180). The process involves a variety of steps- submitting ideas, voting and commenting on those ideas and later the designs, having a say in product names, etc.. Countdown clocks and competitions are employed throughout the process with the result that the entire process “feels like a game” (180).

Similarly, Kickstarter is a web-based system of crowdfunding that is “fun” and has “made a game out of raising money” (174). Deadlines are set, minimum funding levels are defined and if they are not met the project is canceled, various thank-you gifts are offered at different levels of giving, etc. For their efforts and money, investors do not expect a financial return, but rather the new product promised by the project or even just “the emotional reward of knowing that they had something to do with bringing that product into existence” (173).

As in the case of earlier factory workers, fun and games are used to keep the noses of the makers to the grindstone.

The Internet Through a Postmodern Lens


This blog is derived from a plenary talk given in 2011 at the first Theorizing the Web conference at the University of Maryland. This seems an opportune time to raise the issues once again because they seem more relevant than ever. In addition they are offered here in anticipation of the third Theorizing the Web conference scheduled for early 2013 at the City University of New York.

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.

There is, for example, the argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of such conversations. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. Prime examples of this on the Internet include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is continually evolving and a complete iteration online content is impossible. All such sites involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.

Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet or of social networking sites. They are multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. The idea of the “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.

The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves a contraction, a telescoping, a collapse of opposing poles in on one another. The digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to implosion. The possibilities for implosion in the digital world are endless. There are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on the Internet.

Then there is the idea of simulations and the argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This idea of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world of perfect copies without limit. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.

Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point thus far. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds. Indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.

The hyperreal is more real than real; more beautiful than beautiful; truer than true. It is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more real than comparable sites in the material world. Amazon.com has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Hyperreal sex is available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.

Ultimately, we can be seen as living in a fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand like a virus or a cancer.  There is no goal other than endless proliferation. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly.

An interesting idea in this context is the strength of the weak. In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are combined. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by Google’s algorithms. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, for example via Facebook and Twitter, and form a powerful revolutionary group.

The postmodern world is obscene since everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. The Internet is obscene because it is characterized by endless information and communication as well as never-ending social commentary,

Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of giving and receiving. This anticipates Chris Anderson’s world of the free, especially on the Internet. Those involved in the free world of the Internet offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc. In return, they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.

The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and social networking. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, postmodern social theory can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and to have provided us with a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.

Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts. Rather, we should relate them to new realities in order to help us create a set of new concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.

Postmodern Theory and Internet

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.
There is, for example, Richard Rorty’s (1979) argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of the kinds of conversations envisioned by Rorty. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. The Internet is a world devoted to keeping the conversation going. Prime examples of this include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is “constantly under development and can never result in a final, fixed directory of online content” (Bruns 2008: 175). All are sites that involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.
Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet in general or social networking sites in particular. They are all multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. Internet sites are “networked structures [that] necessarily shift power away from the core, the tall peak, and towards the periphery” (Bruns, 2008: 274). Chris Anderson’s (2006) “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.
The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves the “contraction into each of other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapsing of the two traditional poles into one another” (Baudrillard, 1983: 57). The possibility of implosion is enormous in the digital world; the digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to imploding into one another; there are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in the that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on Web 2.0.
Then there is Baudrillard’s (1983: 4) most famous idea of simulations and his argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This ideas of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world, as Shirky ( 2008: 59) argues, of “unlimited, perfect copyability”. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.
Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point, at least until we see later developments on the Internet. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds; indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.
That means they beautifully illustrate another of Baudrillard’s ideas, hyperreality. The hyperreal is more real than real, as well as being more beautiful than beautiful, truer than true; it is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more more real than comparable sites in the material world. Amazon.com has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Baudrillard would have been astounded at the hyperreal sex available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.
Ultimately, Baudrillard (1990/1993: 6) sees us as living in the fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand in a viral or cancerous way. They have no goal other than endless proliferation. This is postmodern in the sense that the modern world was supposed to have an end or goal; the postmodern world does not. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly. description here fits the Internet perfectly, “In the end it makes everything circulate in one space, without depth, where all objects must be able to follow one after the other without slowing down or stopping the circuit” (Baudrillard, cited in Gane, 1993: 147). Everything in such a world, especially on the Internet, is available for communication, banalization, commercialization and consumption.
An interesting idea implicit in Baudrillard’s work is the “strength of the weak” (Genosko , 1992; 1994). In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are added together. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by algorithms such as those used by Google. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, via Facebook and Twitter, for example, and form a powerful revolutionary group.
Baudrillard (1983/1990: 59) is also concerned with the obscene where everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. He describes the society of his day as involving “the rampant obscenity of uninterrupted social commentary”. He also discusses “the pornography of information and communication” (Baudrillard/1990: 69) where we are “buried alive under information” (Baudrillard, 1980-1985: 90). If Baudrillard took that position three decades ago, imagine his reaction to the Internet world of the second decade of the 21st century.
Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of “taking and returning, giving and receiving…[the] cycle of gifts and countergifts” (Baudrillard, 1976/1993: 136). Many observers have described Web 2.0 in similar terms including Tapscott and Williams (2006) who discuss the culture of generosity that exists in that context. Baudrillard anticipates the world of the free (Anderson, 2009) that has been created on the Internet, especially Web 2.0. In that free domain, we do see something approaching a world dominated by symbolic exchange. Those involved offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc.- and in return they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange also has another of the characteristics Baudrillard associates with it- reciprocity on the Internet is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.
The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and Web 2.0. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, at least some of the postmodern social theorists can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and provided us a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.
Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts, but rather we should use them in interaction with the new realities to create a much broader set of concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.

Crowdsourcing and Prosumption

One recent example of crowdsourcing- found on the travel search site Flightfox– points up the close relationship between crowdsourcing and prosumption. While some members of Flightfox’s “crowd” of 900 “experts” may be traditional producers (e.g. 20 % of the experts are travel agents), the vast majority are likely to be prosumers. To be chosen as a prosumer by Flightfox, experts one must have demonstrated the ability to find low fares.

Flightfox “uses a contest format to come up with the best fare that the crowd- all Flightfox-approved users- can find” (Stross, 2011: 3). Once a contest to find the lowest fare for a given itinerary is posted, the crowd is invited to find and submit the lowest fare. The member of the crowd who comes up with the lowest fare gets 75% of Flightfox’s fee for that itinerary. Flightfox employees do no work on any given contest, although work was/is involved in setting up and maintaining its computerized system. The winner of the “contest” does a great deal of work and is rewarded, but many others do as much work, or more, for no reward at all. Not only are they not paid for their work, but it spurs on all involved, including the eventual winner, to work that much harder in order to have a chance at winning.

In fact, the crowd does work that involves far more variables than could be built into an affordable computer program. As the co-founder of Flightfox says, “`There are too many variables for it to be economically feasible to build an algorithm that covers every aspect of travel” (Stross, 2011: 3). Thus the crowd not only works hard, but it functions better than available computer programs. Thus Flightfox needs the members of the crowd, but it could never afford to hire the 900 of them and pay them a living wage.

Flightfox sees itself as having “commercialized” what “flight hackers” do normally and very much enjoy doing- hunting for low fares. Also part of the crowd is travelers looking for ways to finance their travel. The problem is that on any given search, only one member of the crowd benefits economically (and then quite modestly- 75% of a finder’s fee that ranges from $34 to $59). The many “losers” work for nothing (except, perhaps, for the joy of the hunt, the competition, and in this case the success of Flightfox). This system only works for the commercializing entity when all but one (or a few) of the crowd works for nothing.

In light of the exploitative nature of this relationship, Stross (2011: 3) comes to a truly astounding conclusion: ”It’s most heartening to see that in the domain of travel planning, humans still manage to hold their own. Every contest concluded at Flightfox is a small win for the species.” In strong contrast, my view is that yes, it is nice that humans, at least collectively, show that they can do things computers cannot do. However, the big winner here is Flightfox which has a crowd of prosumers working for it for no pay and contributing to its bottom line. As in most cases of commercialized prosumption, it is the capitalistic organization that is the big winner.

Stross, Randall. “”The Lowest Fare? Ask the Crowd.” New York Times September 30, 20ll: 3.

Bruns is also concerned with the way business adapts to groups of produsers (what he calls the “hive”). Produsers are used in crowdsourcing to serve the early needs of business, but later the business can “feed” (through recognition), help (provide services), harbor (host), harness (use the results obtained and offer recognition), harvest (use what is produced and add value), and hijack (lock in the produsers in such a way that the business profits) the hive. Exploitation does not play a prominent role in Bruns’s analysis except in the hijacking of the hive, but it is a major issue to students of prosumption (Fuchs,  200  ; Rey, forthcoming).