Chapter 7: What the Crowd Creates

While listening to their voice and analyzing their behavior are simple things to do, the ultimate form of engaging with the crowd is asking them to create something or contribute effort to its actual development.

Amateur Content

He attempts to back away from the stigma that's been attached to user-generated content, because it is widely regarded as being amateurish and puerile - and admittedly, much of it is. Consider YouTube - much of the content there is very poorly done. Aside of the videos clipped from commercial sources, much of the content is taken from cell-phone cameras with low production quality and little purpose besides lowbrow entertainment and crass humor. Consider text media - "fan fiction" and amateur poetry are both thoroughly awful.

(EN: The internet did not actually start this. There has long been a 'vanity press' thatwould publish books for a fee and recording studios that would create small runs of amateur music recordings. And it was Bad.)

He romanticizes the days before mass media and mass production as a time in which there was less distance between audience and performer. Before recorded music, there were performers in small towns, and very often the musical talent in a village was a farmer who could play an instrument and a milkmaid who could sing. There were some standardized/popular compositions that caught on and spread from town to town to become standards, but there was no central institution that controlled the entertainment industry and decided what would be available to the masses.

The advent of mass-production and mass-communication changed this entirely. Entertainment became an industry in which a small number of studios produced and distributed recordings that were broadly distributed. Aside of market research, consumers had no input and producers received no feedback from their market.

In this sense, the Internet provides the ability for the small and independent entertainer to find an audience. The local garage band's music is just as accessible as the products of major record studios. He speaks a bit mistily of a world in which people aren't forced into predetermined categories and can choose what they want from anywhere and the little guy has a chance to be heard.

(EN: This is all very nice in theory - but the small producer is lost in the clutter and while they're just as many clicks away, they are hard to find. The Internet has been around for nearly three decades, and the small and independent acts still do not achieve much success, largely because the studios still serve as junk filters, ensuring some level of quality.)

He does acknowledge that access to the means of production and distribution doesn't convey talent. The vast majority of amateur photography, music, writing, and film is simply awful. But the law of large numbers maintains that even if only one percent of amateur content is worthwhile, the millions of people creating it means that there must be many quality works among the clutter.

Crowd Collaboration

The network is a distribution channel for the small and independent producer - a person working alone can make his work available to the masses. But it is also a medium through which many people can work together on a single product. Open-source software and Wikipedia are examples of the kinds of things that can be created when many hands contribute a little effort.

One of the problems of crowdsourcing is that it cannot offer compensation to creators. People who write articles for Wikipedia are not paid for their work in the same way that those who write articles or magazines are, so they are largely motivated by vanity. (EN: Though considering magazine writers are still paid the same rates they were in the 1920s, freelance writing is also an act of vanity rather than a viable profession.)

The incentives for companies to sponsor crowdsourcing are obvious: they fantasize about getting a giant labor force that doesn't need to be compensated. And in some cases, they get it: people will give away their work in exchange for the chance to win a t-shirt, or just to see their name in the credits, or simply to have a feeling of influence and power. For tasks that receive little skill, having a contest can be an effective way to get free work.

However, it's not an entirely free ride. There is the cost of putting on and administering the contest, as well as the cost of prizes awarded. Sorting through and assessing the entries is also an onerous task that involves sifting the trash to find the treasure. Managing a virtual community of collaborators to ensure their work progresses toward a desired end is even more time-consuming - and in practice, it is not very effective.

Crowds cannot be directed or managed, but only guided. Your speech can stir up the passions of a mob of people and get them angry enough to riot - but as history shows you cannot control what they choose to destroy. The mob has a mind of its own and a will of its own, and once it is moved to action, it cannot be effectively channeled.

Case Study: iStockphoto

The stock photography industry was tightly controlled before digital photography. The need to handle and store physical film and make business connections with publishers who buy stock imagery made it difficult for an independent photographer to sell his own work.

Digital photography an internet distribution largely broke this model, though there was still the problem of small photographers getting recognition - a publisher could not take the time to visit thousands of independent photographers' personal sites to find images and then negotiate with individuals for their sale.

This problem was solved by iStockphoto, a site that provides a central database of images, digital distribution, and standard compensation contracts for photographers. The site enabled small and independent photographers to be exposed to an ever-growing market of those who needed to buy stock photography.

Today, the company offers the work of over fifty thousand photographers and illustrators from around the world - though admittedly less than 10% of whom make enough money from their work to live on. The rest are part-time workers and amateurs - using inexpensive cameras, it's possible for just about anyone to take a decent shot, or to take hundreds of shots and produce a small number that are usable.

Given that digital photography is so inexpensive, there is the question of why stock photography is necessary at all. But the cost to stage and shoot a quality photograph is still beyond the means of many publishers, and buying stock photography is a cheaper alternative. It's also suggested that many, particularly small businesses, have a need for the "middle and lower ends" of photography - or at least they are willing to settle for a photograph that is good, but not quite perfect, for the sake of getting a cheaper price.

This has also been an economic disruption to the industry, as professional photographers must compete with amateurs whose work may not be as polished, but who can offer it at a much lower price. The author provides a case-study of a professional photographer whose income had been cut in half in two years, and who is no longer sanguine about his ability to continue to sell stock photographs. The cost of travelling or setting up a studio just aren't covered.

There's a brief mention of "post-scarcity economics," which refers to the change that takes place in industries when supply exceeds demand. This often results in a severe upheaval, as firms that dominated when supply was restricted are unable to shift their operations to cope with rapidly diminishing revenue and competition is based almost entirely on the price of homogenized products and victory goes to those with the lowest cost of production.

(EN: My sense is the key to all of this is the motion of customers for the "middle and lower ends." Those who value quality work will still pay the industries that produce it, but those who are seeking bargains and are willing to compromise on quality are well-served by going to the amateur market. And the truth of the matter is, not everyone really needs quality work - so ultimately this may be a winnowing of the industry, which may not be such a bad thing in the end.)

The Community is the Company

There's rather a long ramble of incidental details and anecdotes, in which the author seems to be suggesting that crowdsourcing of this kind is a shift in the notion of what is a company.

In essence, a company is an organization that coordinates the activities of the people who produce something (employees) with the demands of people who want it done (customers) and it manages payments and work assignments accordingly. Those who contribute the capital (investors) to purchase facilities and equipment and to finance work in advance of sale are also compensated for their contribution. So essentially, a company is an organization that coordinates three communities of people who depend on one another.

In traditional economics, the investors are given too much credit for their contribution. Because they own the tangible assets of production, they presume to control the activities of the employees and dictate to the customers what they will be able to purchase. (EN: This seems extreme, but is actually quite accurate - though the control is not necessarily through the assets but the payment of wages, and it seems entirely reasonable to expect those whom you pay to take direction from you in exchange for the money you pay them.)

The same functions are performed by crowdsourced efforts. They do not hire employees, but they attract contributors, whose activities they direct to ensure that their product is acceptable to the consumers who will provide the revenue to pay the expenses of maintaining the operation.

(EN: Wikipedia operates as a nonprofit, but every few months they have a campaign asking for donations to cover the expenses. It is in this way more like a commercial operation who asks customers to pay what they think the service is worth, and hopes to collect enough to keep the operation going.)

It's also asserted that sometimes a crowdsourced effort creates a sense of community. The people who uploaded video clips to YouTube are acting as detached individuals, but the photographers who upload images to iStockphoto have developed some sense of community. They call themselves "iStockers" and arrange meetings among themselves, in which more experienced members work to mentor and support less experienced ones. For hobbyists, this is like belonging to a giant photography club.

(EN: A similar phenomenon is seen in the Harley Davidson owners groups, which become like social clubs of customers of the brand, who arrange riding excursions and social events with one another. It's fascinating, but very rare for a company to be able to foster a sense of community among its customers.)

Case Study: Current TV

The author presents an account of the attempt to create a television network whose entire programming would be composed of user-generated video. (EN: The project ultimately failed, but it was interesting while it lasted.)

Largely, it was an appeal to students, as the network reached out to film schools looking for likely candidates who were capable of producing quality content. The network opened as an independent film channel, but within six months filed about a third of their schedule with submitted videos.

This wasn't exactly in line with the original vision of "democratizing" the media, as students with the means to shoot films were still among the economic elite. So the company attempted to drum up support from the amateur crowd - true amateurs, who used cheap cameras and video editing software that could run on a home computer. They built a web site full of tutorials from celebrated filmmakers and created support forums so that amateur filmmakers could get live support. However, it remained an empty playground. The site drew little traffic, the forums had little activity, and submissions were few.

To be fair, shooting a short film is a tremendous undertaking - from hiring and managing cast and crew, arranging shoots, handling post-production, and the like. It's a significant investment of time and money that the average person is unable to make. Posting a cell phone video clip to YouTube is about all you can expect of the average person. Cutting the required length down to eight minutes did little to drum up contributions.

It's also noted that the notion of democracy in the online medium is largely rhetoric - there are very few contributors, so the content is still not representative of "the people" and likely never will be. Consider that 1% of Wikipedia contributors are responsible for writing fully half of the content on the site's English edition.

(EN: This brings to mind the public broadcast channels that exist in many local markets, which were originally intended to be filled with video shot by citizens. Instead, most became part of the national PBS network, broadcasting content that is created or sponsored by nonprofit organizations or corporate donations. There are rare instances in which a regular person would produce a show for their local public channel. The problem, in the end, is simply a lack of ability or interest on the part of the public.)

Ultimately, the author admits to being "an unabashed fan" of the effort, and very much in love with the idea that such a thing could exist - but even at the time the book was written, Current TV was struggling and has since folded.

Case Study: Assignment Zero

The author then turns to an experiment in citizen journalism. Called "Assignment Zero" it was meant to be a site in which everyday people could submit news reports, either of their own devising or in response to an open "assignment" posted on the site that requested investigation of a specific topic. The author discloses to having been a consultant on the project.

Citizen journalism is sporadically mentioned, particularly when we see that the established media begin including amateur content. People who are on the scene often capture events on their cell phone cameras long before the commercial media can dispatch a camera crew. These videos of natural disasters and political events are included in national coverage, and there's a sense that if anything happens anywhere, someone is going to record it on their cell phone and post it online.

Their great mistake, which is quite common, is assuming that people are looking for a way to aggregate their contributions. Sites such as YouTube have critical mass - they are already in mind when a person thinks about posting a video. Getting people to learn that the "assignment zero" site even existed was difficult. No audience, no contributors, no audience is a vicious circle that many crowdsourcing and social networking sites cannot overcome.

The launch of the Assignment Zero web site was like throwing a party and having no-one show up. The few that did come were greeted by an empty site, with promises that their content would draw an audience that wasn't presently there. After the first week, only five hundred people signed up to be "potential contributors" - most of whom drifted away.

It also didn't help that they were extremely vague in communicating their expectations. People likely had no idea what to contribute, and with little direction to guide them they had no sense of whether it was worth the effort to contribute anything at all. Their fear was that if they were to specific, no-one would be interested. It turned out that failure to be specific was even worse at killing enthusiasm. Even the volunteer staff became disenchanted and deserted the project in the first month.

Frantic to salvage the project, they engaged in constantly redesigning and upgrading the site, desperately hoping to stumble upon the right visual appearance and features that would bring in the crowds - and completely ignoring the lack of the single most important component: content.

He also concedes that people simply don't like writing. Asking them to write a news story was about as appealing as asking them to write a freshman research paper. It was simply not an appealing proposition. While writing an article is not as labor-intensive as producing a short film, it is still much more difficult than simply taking a snapshot. It was only in the final two weeks of the project that Assignment Zero even began to represent an organized and professional establishment, with editors making clear assignments and providing adequate support to contributors.

All the same, the author believes crowdsourced journalism is still a viable idea. "It would be foolhardy to fault the crowd for any of Assignment Zero's missteps," he insists. "The failures were those of the organization ... not a lack of response on the part of our volunteers."