The Human Flesh Search: Large-Scale Crowdsourcing for a Decade and Beyond

Human Flesh Search (HFS, 人肉搜索 in Chinese), a Web-enabled large-scale crowdsourcing phenomenon (mostly based on voluntary crowd power without cash rewards), originated in China a decade ago. It is a new form of search and problem solving scheme that involves the collaboration among a potentially large number of voluntary Web users. The term “human flesh,” an unfortunately bad translation from its Chinese name, refers to the human empowerment (in fact, crowd-powered search is a more appropriate English name). HFS has seen tremendous growth since its inception in 2001 (Figure 1). Figure1_updatedFigure 1. (a) Types of HFS episodes, and (b) evolution of HFS episodes based on social desirability HFS has been a unique Web phenomenon for just over 10 years. HFS presents a valuable test-bed for scientists to validate existing and new theories in social computing, sociology, behavioral sciences, and so forth. Based on a comprehensive dataset of HFS episodes collected from participants’ discussion on the Internet, we performed a series of empirical studies, focusing on the scope of HFS activities, the patterns of HFS crowd collaboration process, and the unique characteristics and dynamics of HFS participant networks. More results of the analysis of HFS participant networks can be found in two papers published in 2010 and 2012 (Additional readings 1 and 2). In this paper, a survey of HFS participants was conducted to provide an in-depth understanding of the HFS community and various factors that motivate these participants to contribute. The survey results shed light on the in-depth understanding of HFS participants and people involved in the crowdsourcing systems. Most participants voluntarily contribute to HFS, without expectation of money rewards (either real-world or virtual world money). The findings indicate great potential for researchers to explore how to design a more effective and efficient crowdsourcing system, and how to better utilize this power of the crowds for social goods, solve complex task-solving problems, and even for business purposes like marketing and management. For more, see our full paper, The Chinese “Human Flesh” Web: the first decade and beyond (free download link; preprint is also available upon request). Qingpeng Zhang, City University of Hong Kong Additoinal readings:

  1. Wang F-Y, Zeng D, Hendler J A, Zhang Q, et al (2010). A study of the human flesh search engine: Crowd-powered expansion of online knowledge. Computer, 43: 45-53. doi:10.1109/MC.2010.216
  2. Zhang Q, Wang F-Y, Zeng D, Wang T (2012). Understanding crowd-powered search groups: A social network perspective. PLoS ONE 7(6): e39749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039749

About the author


Qingpeng Zhang is an Assistant Professor in SEEM at the City University of Hong Kong. His research interests include social computing, complex systems, and web science.

View all posts