Have you flock-sourced lately? If so, you’re a rare bird, or at least a rare researcher. To flock-source is to use pigeons in medical diagnosis. A recent Scientific American article describes how pigeons were given pellets for pecking a benign or malignant button on a touchscreen. The pigeons achieved 85 percent accuracy after training, but the success rate jumped to 99 percent when researchers used the most frequent answer. Thus, flock-sourcing.
Flock-sourcing is an extreme example of the productivity of sourcing in general and variations of crowdsourcing in particular. What began as business jargon has become a fertile and quirky family of words.
Crowdsourcing can be traced to a 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe, in which he wrote, “Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” Right from the start, crowdsourcing was about tapping creativity and saving bucks.
From there, -sourcing as a suffix became extremely productive, taking on a variety of related meanings. A recent Entertainment Weekly headline uses a celebrity-focused variation, “Simon & Schuster announce Taylor Swift fan-sourced book title and author.” In this case, fans of Swift won a contest to title and author the book. Jargon collection The Office Life lists gray-sourcing, meaning “Hiring ancient programmers to support equally ancient IT systems.” There’s sole-sourcing, which Amanda Pfeffer defines for CBC News: “A sole-source listed in a contract means that bidders on the contract must use a certain supplier, rather than explore the best price for the specified job.” Sole-sourcing times two is dual-sourcing. Near-sourcing and self-sourcing refer to procurement that’s close to home or directly from your home company, respectively. Neither is as neighborly as friendsourcing, which is when you seek information, assistance, money, or something else from your pals, usually online.
Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, dug into their files to find other related words: “We’ve got evidence of othersourcing (having work that was formerly done by people now done by robots or computers), rightsourcing (a euphemism for sending work out to partner organizations), multisourcing (sending work out to be done by multiple partners or entities), netsourcing (sending your data management work out to a company that specializes in it), and the related cloudsourcing (having a cloud provider handle some of the services formerly provided in-office), unsourcing (moving operations from a paid in-house staff to an unpaid or low-paid online community), and the original outsourcing (sending work out to a partner company), among others.”
As Stamper mentions, the lexical grandparent of such terms is outsource, which has referred to companies sending work elsewhere since at least 1979. The earliest known use is from The Journal of the Royal Society of Arts: “We are so short of professional engineers in the motor industry that we are having to outsource design work to Germany.” Relative newcomer crowdsourcing has been far more productive than outsourcing, likely due to, as lexicographer Orin Hargraves, says, “the widespread availability of resources never before reachable, due to globalization and technology.” As technology and markets expand, people invent words to keep up, as clouds begat cloudsourcing and beyond.
As with most business jargon, many of the older examples have a negative or at least evasive connotation. When a company outsources, people in that company or region lose out on potential work. But there’s been a shift, as Stamper observes: “What’s interesting about crowdsourcing to me is that it seems to have a more positive connotation than the other -sourcing compounds, though its early uses made it clear that crowdsourcing was parallel to the other -sourcings in that employers were taking work formerly done by employees or contractors and asking the wider world to do that work for free. But the word quickly moved out of the workplace and took on (at the very least) a neutral connotation. It seems to be lacking much of the negative connotations associated with the other -sources.”
The multiplicity of sourcing was foreshadowed by the wide use of the word “source” itself, which has had a variety of meanings since the 1300s. The sense that has stuck and multiplied in English is the origin point of a river or stream. Just as water flows from that source, sources provide information for journalists, power for gadgets, and reasons for pride, regret, love, etc. The use of source as a verb meaning to acquire or procure is much more recent. Its first known use is from The Wall Street Journal in 1972: “Ford works on stripped-down cars, called ‘Asian Model Ts’ that could be sourced and assembled anywhere in Asia.”
Even children aren’t spared the culture and jargon of sourcing. Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry” and “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon,” is intrigued by kid-sourcing. “It seems significant in a way slightly different from crowd- or friendsourcing, the first of which is about relying on the hive and the second more focusedly relying on those you know well to supply components of an answer to a problem. By contrast, kid sourcing is training in the skills necessary to crowd- or friendsource — that is, some of us have decided that sourcing is now a way of life and the best way to do things, so if we want our kids to be life-ready, we’ll have them do kid sourcing projects or play games that promote kid sourcing,” he said.
However, Adams is a bit skeptical about sourcing’s usefulness overall. “Are sourcing and -sourcing really such useful words? Sourcing comes to us from human resources jargon, and I think as jargon it’s pretty useful. I’d have to be convinced, however, that a lot of friendsourcing is going on and that kid sourcing will lead to a brighter future for all before I think -sourcing is especially useful.”
Kid-sourcing is a bizarre term — at first hearing, it sounds like the kids themselves are the resource being plumbed for some unholy benefit. Indoctrinating kids into the world of sourcing isn’t much better and could be a sign that sourcing mania has gone overboard. But trends have a virus-like life of their own, and no one is safe from sourcing: not even friends, fans, children, or pigeons.Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.