Now, we don't want to give the impression that all of these crowdsourcing tasks are about farming out manual labor grunt work. If you do it right, you can get better decisions on complex issues by asking a crowd than you can by asking a few experts.
However, simple questions like "Where should we eat?" will take hours to argue out.
Some of the best examples of this involve cases where the crowd didn't know they were being asked a question at all. Back in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, the stock market immediately reacted by selling the stocks of the four main contractors that were involved in building the spacecraft. But experts noticed something odd in the buying and selling habits of all of those millions of traders. Three of the contractors' stock saw only minor losses, ending the day with an average loss of 3 percent. Yet the fourth company, an outfit called Morton Thiokol, had their stock end down by a whopping 12 percent.
It was clear that the investors blamed them (or their components) for the accident, even though the news coverage had in no way fingered them as the culprit. The press did have some rumors about what caused the accident, but no one was implicating Thiokol above any of the other companies. It took a Washington blue ribbon commission six months to figure out that, sure enough, Morton Thiokol was responsible. It took the faceless mass of investors one day.
Our methods of prediction involve a financial paper, a bear and wild flailing. We're all millionaires.
Experiments have been done on this from several angles, and the results are always remarkable. You remember the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" (you saw it if you were watching TV in the same room as your grandmother). It was a quiz show where if you got stuck on a question, you had three options for help. You could eliminate two of the four possible answers, raising your odds to 50/50, you could phone an expert or you could ask the audience to vote on the right answer.
This gives us a unique opportunity to study who has the better scores, the "experts" or the audience. So James Surowiecki, author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds, actually ran the numbers. The results? While the experts got the answer right about 65 percent of the time, which is a respectable score, the audience -- made up of random dumbasses who waited in line to watch a game show -- managed to get the correct answer a shocking 91 percent of the time.
If these questions were posed over the Internet, half the audience would answer "FIRST" and the other half would call them fags.
And it doesn't just work for trivia questions, either. One researcher asked a group of 56 people how many jelly beans were in a jar. And while some people guessed way too low, and some guessed way too high, they all averaged out and guessed 871, only 21 beans higher than the actual amount.
Well, we guess this proves that millions of people can't be wrong and Twilight is the best book of our generation.
This is why you can't dismiss "prediction markets" like Intrade, where the crowd basically bets money on outcomes for everything from elections to geopolitical events. Huge corporations now use such prediction markets to make decisions, including Google, which details the predictions in this blog post. They know what they're doing, right?
Some groups just aren't satisfied with using you and thousands of strangers to tackle one or two issues. Some groups want to solve it all.
Take Zooniverse, for example. Any scientific project with a crowdsourcing goal can open up shop on their site and gain access to the half million people they have registered as members. They currently have about 10 major active projects with goals that range from having volunteers read through actual 100-year-old ship logs from the royal English Navy to creating a online map of the galaxies.
Here we're discovering a planet, soon to be named Bonaas9000.
But what about all that time you spend away from your computer, selfishly living your life instead of helping out the cause? Is there a way you can pitch in without, you know, actually doing anything?
Actually, yes. The World Community Grid is looking to take advantage of all that downtime your computer has by putting it to work on something meaningful. Through a simple download, whenever your computer starts to go into idle or sleep mode, they will borrow your computer's processing power to try to save the world.
Finally, a use for our Cheetos 2 a.m. crash time.
They currently have more than half a million PCs forming one huge distributed computing hive mind super computer, tackling aspects of the human genome, HIV, muscular dystrophy, cancer and clean energy. Users are automatically opted in to all of these projects, but you can choose to opt out of ones you find disagreeable.
"I WILL STAY AWAKE ALL NIGHT TO STOP YOU FROM CURING CANCER."
For more on crowds getting it done (or not), check out The 25 Most Nonsensical Protest Signs and The 8 Most Ridiculously Badass Protesters Ever Photographed.