On Wednesday, I’m attending Remixology 2, an event put together by Fresh Media, on the topic of crowdsourcing. In particular, I’ll somehow be the representative of the entire open web perspective on crowdsourcing (!), Alfred Hermida will be talking about the journalist’s perspective, and Leigh Christie will be there representing artists. I’m hoping that the audience doesn’t expect any one of us to speak authoritatively on any topic, and that we can instead have a conversation. Since talking to Hanna Cho about the event, I’ve had a couple of thoughts on the topic that I’m hoping I’ll be able to fit into that conversation.
Crowdsourcing, like most buzzwords, is loaded with too many meanings, and I rarely use it. I’m more interested in figuring out how to leverage the internet to enable collaboration on a grand scale. Everyone has experience with 1-1 collaboration, whether through email, shared writings spaces, voice calls, etc. The internet has provided the technologies to make such collaboration radically cheaper and faster than before, and the biggest challenge it has brought have been widely discussed: we’re always connected, for better or worse; we’re always interrupted; the world is smaller; nobody knows you’re a dog. All of which is old hat to anyone who’se spent any time online in the last couple of decades.
The advent of mass instant collaboration and mass participation is made possible by the same technologies, but I think we’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out both how to do it well, and what the societal impact will be. I’m hoping we can talk about that a bit.
It’s easier than ever to spread a meme, and to recruit a population the size of a small army who are all interested or even passionate about your meme. With ubiquitous communication systems (phones, laptops, cheap broadband, internet cafes, etc), social “viral” media (twitter, facebook, chain letters, etc.), rich media production models (video on phones and youtube), it seems that viral messages spread like wildfire (of course there’s a massive selection bias: deliberately starting a wildfire is incredibly hard in practice). Let’s grant that getting the word out is easy. Depending on the topic, one can get the attention of a cohort of like-minded folks fairly easy (that’s 500 soldiers, if the roman army is a guide). If any one of them has an hour or two to contribute, pretty soon we’re talking a person-year or more of effort, which can be a potent resource if focused!
The cost of building and running web sites has also plumetted, and the number of people capable of doing so is skyrocketing, which makes it easy (in theory) for anyone to create a place for these people to gather, discuss, coordinate, work, agitate, whatever. Some will build dedicated websites, others will use shared tools like Facebook groups, mailing lists, etc. In most countries, such gatherings are undetected, let alone regulated. We now have mechanisms for coordination of group action. The potential is seemingly unbounded.
Many online activities are virtually free. Interestingly, even when there are real (or forecasted) costs to a project, the last few years have seen the maturation of many interesting micropayment systems. The trendiest is Kickstarter, which somehow gathered the mindshare in the “let’s get together and fund X” world, and its most famous success is Diaspora, who raised $200k, which was 20 times what they asked for, just because they said they’d take on Facebook. So even in the treacherous arena of cash, there are now funding models which seem to work (at least for small-scale efforts). Thus, to the sheer hours of invested time, we can now add a few thousand dollars.
So now we have a few hundred people, excited about some idea. There’s a website, and even a modest bank balance. To use the techy jargon, we’ve got scalable models for meme propagation, recruitment, coordination & communication, advocacy, marketing & PR, and funraising. Awesome.
Now it’s time to actually do stuff. In particular, it’s time to plan, schedule, prioritize, make decisions, commit some code, commit to something. In my experience, that’s the part that we still don’t know how to scale. Everyone in the army of volunteers has ideas about what should be done (but only a small percentage will actually have relevant skills or experience). Everyone will have opinions about what words should be used, but only a small number will actually really listen to the other’s opinions. If we’re not careful, we now have a large group of people who think share a goal, but who are not organized. And that can be really hard to deal with, especially given that we’ve made it really easy for them to shout at each other.
Which leads to my main point, which is that the next challenge for mass collaboration and coordination over the internet isn’t going to be technological, but human. Specifically, what will differentiate important projects from the rest are the people who can help groups of people achieve common goals. That’s not a new task, but the cybernetic setting will require to adapt old skills and create new cultural norms. Three skills at least are needed to facilitate that kind of coordination:
The first is some form of leadership. Quite often, the initiator of the meme didn’t really intend to start a micro-movement. She just tweeted something, or uploaded a ranty video, or wrote a scathing blog post. And all of a sudden she is the center of attention from a bunch of strangers who “agree” and want to “do something about it”. In that kind of situation, converting emotional energy into effective action will (I claim) depend on the emergence of a leader of some kind. Which doesn’t mean a spokesperson, or a dictator (benevolent or not). It just means someone who, using whatever means are appropriate for that group, can get the group focused, moving in a roughly consistent direction towards some vague approximation of a common goal. Different groups of people will respond to different types of leadership, but I’m pretty sure all large groups need at least one individual they can anchor to.
The second is organizing. The style of organization needed will vary wildly depending on the group, from simply taking notes to gardening a wiki to tweeting a lot, nagging, proofreading, testing. But there is a yin to the leadership yang, and the people who are good at getting people excited are rarely the same who can remind them to uphold their commitments.
The third is what my friend David Eaves refers to as negotiation, or the process of seeking common interests among a set of potential collaborators, and building commitments and mutual trust along the way. This skill is rarely explicitly discussed in many organizations, because most organizations have built-in power structures which have well understood tie-breakers (“the senior person decides”, “the client decides”) as well as clear consequences to disagreement (“you’re fired/demoted/etc.”, “this contract isn’t renewed”, “you’re not invited next time”, etc.). Neither of these are as clear in a setting where peering and fraternity are assumed over hierarchy and management. If I show up at your virtual event expecting to be treated like a peer, but it so happens that I misunderstood what your goal was, the odds are pretty good that one of us will frustrate or disappoint the other. If we both care about our own visions, the odds of a flame war are high. To avoid that, we need to clarify the goals up front and review them often. We need to really explore everyone’s interests and both detect overlap and explore differences. And we need to keep in mind everyone’s BATNA. It’s work, but it’s the only way to actually draw from everyone’s strengths. I think the open source / open web world is still a beginner in this arena, but I’m glad that we’re working on those muscles.
Of course, the technologist and UX thinker in me is keen to figure out whether we can design systems that help with these all-to-human (and all-too-fragile) tasks, build digital prostheses of a sort. You can see baby steps emerging among the more “social” web apps of the day: the indicators of mood on support forums like getsatisfaction.com for example, let people emote quietly, and provide non-verbal cues to emotional state, which are all to often lost in textual communications. Building interfaces that surface the people behind the comments leads, I think, to more humane conversations (one of Facebook’s brilliant early moves was to encourage/require “real names, real photos”). There are also simple tricks: at Mozilla, we’ve also found that if one detects conflict, it’s usually a good idea to try and resolve it using private voice calls rather than prolonged, public, painful email discussions.
I’m sure that by Wednesday I’ll have other thoughts in my head which will push these out of the way, but I’m curious to see whether these thoughts resonate with people in other disciplines, or whether different cultures lead to radically different world views.