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In the News

The on Crowd

Dec 14 2010 8:37AM   By Li Xiaoshu

Gao Zhiyu first logged on Zhubajie China's largest crowdsourcing website on January 25 2008 to join an estimated 20 million registered users on more than 100 such sites where talented individuals gather to trade their intellect knowledge and business savvy bidding to solve problems for individuals or organizations. 

As the number of Chinese mainland Internet users reached 446 million in October 30 crowdsourcing is reportedly the hottest new trend that is reshaping Chinese society and transforming young people's lifestyles.

"It's groundbreaking" says Gao a former graphic designer of the Heilongjiang Modern Higher Education Training Center in Harbin capital of Heilongjiang Province.

"Simple clicks of the mouse directly bring value to knowledge and time. Now I work in a more flexible challenging and creative way.

"Cyberspace sets fewer boundaries and frees the mind."

Working in a 150-square-meter Harbin studio and living in the same building Gao has a tight schedule:

10-10:30 am: Get up turn on computer.

11-11:30 am: Log on QQ instant messaging software cook lunch listen to music.

12 noon-5:30 pm: Surf crowdsourcing website make five bids on average work out drafts providing the most relevant and fresh ideas for tasks communicate with clients.

5:30 pm-7 pm: Go to market cook and eat dinner.

7-9 pm: Relax take a walk outside or play computer games at home.

9 pm-1:30 am: Communicate with clients and work on tasks.

1:30-3 am: Complete projects. If finished watch a movie.

3:30 am: Sleep

Twenty months after he fired his boss on April 6 last year Gao 24 earns more than 60000 yuan ($8823) - three times his previous white-collar salary - as what Chinese call a "witkey" or wei ke in pinyin.

Witkey groups have realized a total turnover of 350 million yuan since the first witkey website was founded on July 20 2005 in Beijing according to the White Paper on the Witkey Industry released at the 2010 Global Witkey and Crowdsourcing Conference held on November 18.

Online payment
Chinese witkey theorist Liu Feng a researcher at the Research Center on Fictitious Economy and Data Science under the China Academy of Sciences in Beijing believes the paradigm shift has been abetted by new Internet applications and online payment systems developed on the mainland.

"Bulletin board functions continuously separate into blogging Wikipedia social networking websites microblogging and other forms" Liu says.

"With credible financial solutions souping up e-commerce and consensus building that information should no longer be freely allocated crowdsourcing supplies easier access converting grassroots wisdom into productivity in the new age."

Or "work 2.0" as Zhu Mingyue CEO of put it.

"In the traditional employment market people with better social resources enjoy more opportunities than those with fewer connections and information.

"On a witkey platform tasks and rewards are open to all equally and transparently."

A Chongqing Evening News reporter for six years Zhu handed in his resignation letter on June 21 2006 and spent 500 yuan building the online framework for a website with a more than 160 million yuan crowdsourcing trade volume today and with plans to set up a branch for its English site in Houston next year. 

For a Confucius-based Oriental society embracing State-run capitalism under the guidance of an enlightened members-only political elite witkey also represents a refreshing revolutionary break with millennia of guanxi or "connections."

Witkey Zhang Shuangxi 65 can never forget how he struggled to work three decades ago in Yinchuan capital of the remote Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

How well he remembers freezing winter mornings jumping out of a warm bed rushing to wash and snatch breakfast on the way to a bus stop with sleepy crowds of anxious commuters.

Zhang would elbow his path through the fragrant crowd shoving his way to the bus door where the ticket vendor yelled at passengers to push harder until everyone possible had a place in a packed dangerous space.

"Sometimes I clung to a window to climb into the bus" said Zhang a construction company engineer. "No one wanted to be fined for arriving late."

Zhang was at first delighted when his 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution collective job was abolished and replaced by the principle of "more labor more benefits" adopted after Deng Xiaoping launched China's opening up policy in 1978. 

However he says he soon found out the newer better system of income distribution still depended heavily on official patronage. Bored by office politics he sensed his opportunity in 1979 when the first Chinese were allowed to become self-employed.

As participation in the new market economy was seen as highly risky most self-employed businesspeople were seen as speculators or profiteers from the lower tiers of socialist hierarchy.

Zhang's company offered him two career options in 1981: To become an administrative official with a stable salary or a project contractor drifting around China.

Two years later Zhang could buy a Jeep from the commissions he made landing fat construction contracts. His family became one of China's first "10000 yuan households."

An Internet user since 1999 Zhang registered himself as a witkey on October 14 2008.

Today the retired manager of Beijing Jinghua Heritage Building Company has supervised construction projects designed brand logos and drafted quadrangular yards and villas all online.

"Individuals tend to be more open for online tasks" Zhang says "because they are not being physically judged or scrutinized.

"Everything's simple and free-spirited. No morning alarms no bus or subway no elevator no punch in no lecturing from seniors.

"I get rewarded for my insights and expertise and don't even have to meet my payer. It's a post-soho work style leveraged by the growing popularity of the Internet."

Not every witkey embraces Zhang's utopian optimism about this supposed witkey lifestyle ideal.

In fact only 7.6 percent of active witkeys work fulltime with 87.3 percent part-timers according to China's leading market research organization iResearch.

"The witkey mode isn't stable enough to stir job-hopping among the middle classes" says witkey Xu Zhihai a department director of Xinwei Computer Science College in Chongqing "but it's an alternative that maximizes the value of extra intelligence and professional skill."

Thirty-year-old Xu makes 2000 to 7000 yuan extra a month from crowdsourcing tasks.

Jin Lili 57 won't risk becoming a professional witkey despite a crowdsourcing income of more than 3000 yuan a month being higher than her fixed salary.

"If I were 10 years younger" says the website operator at the Baita District In-service Training School for Teachers in Liaoyang a prefecture-level city in Liaoning Province "I would definitely run an off-line workshop to set up my own business."

Beneath the revolutionary lifestyle rhetoric Chinese witkey websites have been criticized for offering low-end solutions invading intellectual property rights and producing intellectual waste.

Jay Wei CEO of Melbourne-based real estate company Longriver Investments only posts menial tasks for Chinese witkeys. The rewards for tasks performed on Chinese mainland crowdsourcing sites are up to 10 times cheaper than those on a foreign site Wei explains.

More challenging projects he posts on the world's largest online service marketplace providing more than 250000 freelance programmers Web developers graphic designers and writers.

"Compared with Western freelancers in the creative industry the Chinese offer limited refreshing ideas that can really shock clients" Wei says.

"Often lured by quick success and instant benefits China is a hotbed for counterfeitness. Further growth of the online creative industry requires a mindset and a system that respect originality and authenticity. "

Sixty-one-year-old Yin Chengzhi a Chongqing witkey complains his work submitted to crowdsourcers has been repeatedly plagiarized by unidentified witkeys and task initiators bringing him approximate losses of 12000 yuan.

"There's no way for me to appeal against behavior violating my intellectual property rights" he says.

Li Feng vice president of International Data Group China sees no resolution to all plagiarism problems that have inevitably emerged with Web 2.0 technology and China's rising but fragile soft power.

"A global ethical and technical framework should be drafted to eliminate rampant bad practices that inhibit the mainland's crowdsourcing industry the very pool of Chinese creativity" Li says.

"This is an open task for all members of society. Don't lose the keys to wisdom."

Fast facts: Witkey
Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor to an undefined large group of people or community through an open call.

The term was first coined by Jeff Howe contributing editor to a June 2006 San Francisco-based Wired magazine article "The Rise of Crowdsourcing."

The concept of crowdsourcing depends on an open call among an undefined group that gathers those who are most fit to perform tasks complex problems and contribute the most relevant and fresh ideas to benefit from their input. Those who make successful bids will finally get paid.

Crowdsourcing has become popular with businesses authors and journalists as shorthand for the trend of applying the mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technologies to achieve business goals. Both the term and its underlying business models have attracted controversy and criticisms.

First proposed by Liu Feng a then-graduate student at the China Academy of Sciences in Beijing "witkey" is the Chinglish word for a person who works in crowdsourcing that suggests the key to wisdom.