Readers who have been with us for a while will recall that in 2010, Daniel Reid and I wrote an article for Edward P. Clapp’s 20UNDER40 anthology called Audiences at the Gate: Reinventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing. The article contends that traditional models of philanthropy, in which a single program officer or a handful of expert panelists make resource allocation decisions, are increasingly ill-suited for supporting entrepreneurial projects in the arts. The sheer volume of choices overwhelms grantmaking bodies’ evaluative capacity, making it impossible to make truly informed judgments about who is more deserving of funding. The only way to avoid perpetuating the inequities of the commercial marketplace, we argue, is to beef up that capacity – which means getting lots more people involved.

I’m very pleased to share that an updated and revised edition of this article appears in the Summer 2012 edition of the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, available here. In addition to updating our stats and actually naming our concept (“the Gate,” as a working title), we’ve rewritten essentially the entire middle section to address the major advances in crowdfunding that have taken place since original publication. Below is an excerpt of some of the new material:

Crowdfunding has brought a few clear benefits to arts philanthropy. First, the sites facilitate solicitation for smaller donations, making it easier for individual artists to leverage their social networks and aggregate modest giving into significant funding. Second, it is reasonable to assume that some portion of the money pledged through sites like Kickstarter represents new money for the arts, provided by donors who are motivated by the convenience and/or viral nature of the medium to give more or more often than before. Third, the sites provide a forum for interaction between artists and possible donors and audiences, potentially engaging fans in a project more deeply than is usually possible offline.

But these online donor marketplaces fall short of the full potential of crowdsourcing for arts philanthropy, in part because they use the same tools as the market and traditional philanthropy to cope with the lack of capacity to evaluate art. This can work in two ways. Some sites, like USA Projects, explicitly use traditional gatekeepers to restrict the number of projects available on the site: artists are eligible to post a project only if they have received an award or residency from the site’s “growing list of distinguished arts organizations around the country.” 18  Others, like Kickstarter itself, exercise little editorial discretion over which projects are posted. 19  This effectively creates an open marketplace for artistic support — but it doesn’t solve the problems with such a market discussed previously. A would-be donor confronted by the 27,086 projects on Kickstarter in 2011 may poke around the site a bit and stumble across something entirely new he wants to support, but more likely he will rely on guidance from gatekeepers (such as media sources or Kickstarter’s own staff) to choose projects. There is little incentive for him to browse unfamiliar proposals endlessly without some deeper reward for doing so, especially if he has limited funds to donate. 20

More important, supporting a project on these sites is much like supporting a project in real life: you vote with your own dollars. Accordingly, the most fair-minded, informed, and thoughtful critics — the people best able to assess the long-term value of cultivating a given artist or organization — have no more influence than a casual browser or a relative of the artist with the same amount of disposable income. Crowdfunding sites thus fundamentally resemble the commercial marketplace, doing little to address the systemic inequities that pervade the market for access to consumers.

Daniel and I propose a fairly detailed scheme for exactly how this dilemma could be addressed, delicately balancing the open ethos of crowdsourcing with the need to privilege the opinions and wisdom of the most valuable contributors. This “guided crowsourcing” approach- which ultimately is about distinguishing between experts and non-experts when relying on the crowd to make good decisions – is by no means applicable only to philanthropy, and several recent articles show why. Remember that concerto contest that the Pittsburgh Symphony announced a while back, in which the winner would be chosen by voters on YouTube? In the end, the PSO decided to scrap the contest for lack of a candidate of sufficient quality, as judged by artistic director Manfred Honeck. Eric Felton considers the fallout and notes flaws in the process, which was a straight up popularity contest that did nothing to discourage voters with unhelpful motivations:

When the PSO announced the concerto semifinalists and invited the world to watch their YouTube performance videos, the voting public was soon posting comments on the PSO website explaining its choices. “My choice, was a student of mine in elementary school,” bragged one. Another declared her favorite “deserves everyone’s vote” because “I have watched her as a child starting to play the harp at First Baptist.” At least that was tangentially about her work as a musician, unlike the vote of confidence that one contestant got from a grateful neighbor: “Congratulations to that young man who shovels my walks…” And if the names on the postings are any indication, the young lady born in Puerto Rico managed to corner the support of Latinas. Whether it’s a matter of piling up five-star reviews on Amazon or securing the collective approbation of Yelp users, online ratings are all too often a measure not of product quality but of the promoters’ skill at Internet marketing and social-media manipulation.

I couldn’t agree more, and this is a major theme that Daniel and I address in our article. After drawing the gleeful attention of prognosticators and futurists galore, it seems that crowdsourcing as a concept is starting to see a backlash. David Leonhardt from the New York Times recently noted that prediction markets (a favorite trope of fans of the crowd) completely failed to anticipate John Roberts’s deciding vote on the recent Supreme Court health care reform case. Nevertheless, Leonhardt is quick to point out that relying on individual experts isn’t really any better, offering this set of wisdom-nuggets that collectively make our point:

The answer, I think, is to take the best of what both experts and markets have to offer, realizing that the combination of the two offers a better window onto the future than either alone. Markets are at their best when they can synthesize large amounts of disparate information, as on an election night. Experts are most useful when a system exists to identify the most truly knowledgeable — a system that often resembles a market.

Sometimes, this approach involves a wisdom-of-crowds approach to experts. My colleague Nate Silver, whose book on prediction comes out later this year, has found that a simple average of well-known economic forecasts is substantially more accurate than individual forecasts. Other times, the approach might involve as much art as science — and, again, the Internet allows for strategies that once would have been impossible.

Think for a moment about what a Twitter feed is: it’s a personalized market of experts (and friends), in which you can build your own focus group and listen to its collective analysis about the past, present and future. An RSS feed, in which you choose blogs to read, works similarly. You make decisions about which experts are worthy of your attention, based both on your own judgments about them and on other experts’ judgments.

Their predictions now face a market discipline that did not always exist before the Internet came along. “Experts exist,” as Mr. Wolfers says, “but they’re not necessarily the same as the guys on TV.”

Indeed, one of the examples that I use in my TEDx talk about citizen curation is that of Brad Bourland, a grocery store clerk from Austin, TX who has ranked the 20th century’s greatest 9200 movies, and watched 7000 of them. Is he really all that much less qualified to judge, say, a film festival than the people who have that job now? Meanwhile, ReadWriteWeb’s Dave Copeland riffs off of Leonhardt’s article and shares the story of GeniusRocket, a company that has moved to a model of “curated crowdsourcing” after growing disenchanted with the more common popularity-contest variety. “The Key to Crowdsourcing? Smarter Crowds,” declares the headline.

The original version of “Audiences at the Gate” has become among the most-read posts on this site despite its prodigious length of nearly 6,000 words, but in the 18 months since Daniel and I offered these ideas up to the world, there has been no serious consideration that I know of to put them into practice. The wider world is starting to catch on to the promise of guided crowdsourcing. Who will be the first to try it in the arts?

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