Crowdsourcing example: The Oxford English Dictionary

by Chris F

While on my internet travels of trying to find out examples of gamification and crowd-sourcing, I have found out what I believe to be one of the biggest crowd-sourcing projects in the pre-internet era: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Oxford English Dictionary

This dictionary was composed over the course of 70 years, with one or two central editors and over 800 volunteers who read books, trying to find first uses of words, which they would then mail back to the editors. If having almost 1000 volunteers doing work that would benefit a greater audience from their homes isn’t crowd-sourcing, I don’t know what is.

What I found most interesting about this, though, is that at that time I doubt that such a concept as gamification existed (it isn’t in the 1888 edition of the OED anyway). So, how exactly did the editors manage to get so many people to help them out?

Maybe if we are to send them badges for each 10 words that they contribute…

If I’m to think what would motivate that many people to go through sometimes obscure books and articles, trying to find the first mention of a word and then thoroughly document it, as well as spend quite a lot (from 1p to threepence) on mailing each new reference back to the central office, I’m inclined to believe that it must have been something quite important. Maybe some of them were trying to leave a legacy: after all, when you know that your work has the potential to be in the first ever unified English dictionary, the value of that can’t be quite measured. So to some of them, it’s possible that the work might have been a reward in and of itself. Then maybe there were literary societies where volunteers met in order to work together and read facsimiles. One of the editors of the OED did, after all, start the Early English Text Society in order to get access to older texts and get them republished. It’s not unreasonable to believe that people created more societies around the work that needed to be done for the OED.

Those are two motivations for volunteering for something like this: your work could forever be saved in a place where a lot of other people would see it, and you could meet with other people with the same passion as you. But surely there must have been a meticulous way of organizing 800 people to do work. You couldn’t just tell them to go out there and find words, because they would be lost. Where to start? Since even the editors themselves worked on a letter-by-letter and in some cases even subgroup of letters by subgroup of letters basis, I’m guessing that each volunteer was given a lettering interval to check, for example from Ap to Az. More than one volunteer would get that same grouping, of course, to be able to cross-reference, but this sounds terribly like one of the mechanics that get circulated around when people talk about gamification: missions. Breaking down the huge task that your player has to do into smaller, easily digestible parts is what happened here as well, in my opinion.

So, in the end, you can see that even two hundred years ago, people were using these mechanics that we make so popular in order to get volunteers to work. And that, even two hundred years ago, people were motivated by higher purposes and by socializing.

Chris F.

Note: I could not find lots of notes on the whole process of gathering the actual data from volunteers, but what fragments I’ve found, I used to deduce the above. In order to find more materials about the OED, visit the wikipedia link, with avenues from where you can learn more.

Oxford English Dictionary. Available: Last accessed 13th Oct 2013.

OED. Reading Programme. Available:$0020Programme. Last accessed 13th Oct 2013.