by Michael Ho

Filed Under:
advertising, crowdsourcing, neil gaiman

Crowdsourcing Doesn't Guarantee Quality... But It Can Be Great Advertising

from the to-crowdsource-or-not-to-crowdsource dept

Earlier this month, BBC Audiobooks America started an audiobook project based on Twitter messages where Neil Gaiman kicked off an exquisite corpse process of stringing together about 1,000 Tweets to forge a storyline. Dozens of Twitter users contributed tweets to be edited into a coherent plot that will be released as a free audiobook download. From this publicity stunt, an approximately 50-page book (or 2-hr audiobook, actually) has been created from Gaiman's fans. And presumably, the collection of tweets could also be remixed and edited -- and improved -- to possibly gain further participation from Gaiman (who contributed the first line of the story and will read aloud the completed audiobook) and the attention of any number of other authors. It's not exactly a brand-new idea to compose a story in this way, but it's a very interesting way to advertise and connect with fans to whet their appetites for more content to come (and even pay for).

However, the crowdsourcing aspect of this particular audiobook has been criticized in detail for exhibiting the worst of literary clichés as well as a meandering plot with too many characters and unresolved arcs. But generalizing this crowd's apparently unsatisfying result to all possible collaborative-author processes seems a bit disingenuous. Perhaps it's one of my pet peeves, but the schadenfreude surrounding crowdsourced works that aren't "as good as Shakespeare" seems to focus too much on some artificial failure, and not the potential or the realized successes. Maybe fiction isn't the best target for collaborative authorship, but the suggestion that collaborative writing won't ever work for good storytelling is far from proven. In fact, many popular stories (TV shows, etc) are written by teams of authors. (So the question could be posed: where does the optimal number of authors arise?) Conversely, the overwhelming number of unsuccessful stories written by single authors should not discourage writers from working alone, either. Bad stories happen.

The real triumph of this crowdwork is that this experiment engaged with its audience and promoted Gaiman and BBCAA for future works. From the BBC's perspective, a ton of content was generated largely for free, and a promotional audiobook was created in just a few days. Had the BBC commissioned a single author to compose a similar work, there wouldn't be any guarantees of a compelling book in the end. And working with a single author might require more complex licensing rights and royalties. So crowdsourcing this project sounds like an advertising coup -- generating a promotion appropriately disguised as free content. It's not Shakespeare, but it's a whole lot better than a banner ad, right?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Grae (profile), Oct 27th, 2009 @ 6:20pm

    Disingenuous Indeed

    Salon's Ms. Miller seems to start off describing overwhelmingly common problems with projects and their management: poor/absent leadership, team members with subpar skillsets, and team members with poor attitudes. These sorts of issues occur regardless of project size, but to tack on the paragraph (My emphasis)
    Most of us do recognize the real thing when we see it in action, but that's another matter. As Delany put it, "While many -- or even most -- people can internalize a range of literary models strongly enough to recognize and enjoy them when they see them in ... new works that they read, very few people internalize them to the extent that they can apply them to new material and use them to create. Lots of people want to. But not many people can." Not many people, and certainly no crowds.
    At worst Ms. Miller can claim that the project was poorly executed, assuming the goal was to produce a quality work of fiction. This sort of strawman reporting while not surprising is a let-down.

    I speculate that with more editorial control a more coherent story could be produced. But it's a fine line to dance on, with a bad story on one side and pissed off fans on the other. I have to agree with Techdirt on this one: it's better to have made the fans happy and ended up with a subpar work than the other way around at the end of the day. Not to mention all the attention it's getting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Oct 27th, 2009 @ 6:27pm

    Everyone becomes a creator

    I think music is headed this way. People want to feel a part of the creation. While some continue to be happy just to listen to music, others are participating, even if it involves nothing more than going to shows and texting friends. Fans these days are finding the tools to interject themselves into the show.

    The artists who may succeed in the future may not be the best musicians, but the ones who can best engage the audiences. The value of the Gaiman experiment, as you have pointed out, is that it got lots of people involved. The final result is not as important as giving people the feeling that they are part of the process. Karaoke isn't great music, but it's popular because a lot of people can do it. Flash mobs have appeal because lots of people can do them and the final result is quite fun.

    Here's something I wrote on the topic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Michael Ho (profile), Oct 27th, 2009 @ 6:38pm

    Re: Disingenuous Indeed

    I actually wonder if the story could be salvaged and remixed into short(er) story that excludes most of the "bad" tweets -- and if Neil Gaiman would read a remixed version for another audiobook.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2009 @ 6:52pm

    The Grantville Gazettes that is compiled by Eric Flint and based on his popular 1632 series, is a good example of "crowdsourced fiction", imo. While not all stories submitted get to be published (they go through a process), it is a great way to connect with fans, and interacting with them. Not only are the relationship with fans fostered and the fans given a reason to buy through webscriptions, but aspiring authors are also discovered.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Ilfar, Oct 28th, 2009 @ 12:19am

    Grantville Gazette

    What number is it up to by now? Half his webscriptions profile seems to be Gazettes by now ;)

    I don't read Shakespeare, so saying that the twitter-generated storyline isn't like it is a pretty good advertisement for me to at least go glance at it :P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    gant read, Oct 28th, 2009 @ 4:07am

    yes you get the quality you desire!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    ethorad (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 5:40am

    not as good as shakespeare?

    Of course it's not as good as Shakespeare - you'll never get that good by taking random lines from thousands of people. Every one knows you need random lines from an infinite number of monkeys!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    hegemon13, Oct 28th, 2009 @ 8:29am

    Hmmm, not sure about this

    For a short story or novel to work, there are some critical elements. First, a voice for the narrator. If the voice is inconsistent, it is very difficult to break the fourth wall. Second, a story needs a sustained tone or mood. If the story bounces around all over the place, the reader is left confused and distant. Third, there must be careful and sustained character and plot development. A plot can't simply "happen." It must be well-planned for the sake of pacing and reveals.

    There are of course, a lot of other important elements of a good story, but those above highlight how difficult crowdsourcing a work of fiction would be. Writing fiction is not easy; in fact, it is shockingly difficult. It is one of the most exclusive careers in the world, and there's a reason for that. The best editor out there will be unlikely to form a good story from cobbled tidbits of non-writers' writing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 8:59am

    Not art but community

    I see something like this as an exercise in community more than art. There are at least two different concepts when involving lots of people.

    1. Crowdsourcing: Lots of people contribute ideas. Those idea can either be combined, like the above novel. Or someone can pick and choose among them in hopes of finding the best one. People submitting t-shirt designs which can be voted on could be an example here.

    2. Community involvement. Lots of people participate, but the idea has been generated by a central entity which maintains an overall vision. A flash mob where everyone does a planned dance could be an example.

    All three produce some levels of engagement, but with varying degrees of art quality.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Gene Cavanaugh, Oct 28th, 2009 @ 9:09am

    Artist experiments

    Why don't we have articles about electricians who do some innovative electrical work? Plumbers who do innovative plumbing?
    Oh, I forgot - those people do something USEFUL - okay, since the only useless stuff around is from "artists", let's continue to devote massive amounts of space to them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 9:23am

    Re: Artist experiments

    "Oh, I forgot - those people do something USEFUL - okay, since the only useless stuff around is from "artists", let's continue to devote massive amounts of space to them."

    You know, you're observation sums up the dilemma for artists these days. Their creations aren't necessary and in many cases can be easily copied, so it is harder to make money at what they do. I think more people are going to create art for their own self-expression and amusement, but relatively few are actually going to make any money doing it.

    People will do "real work" for income, and art for fun, for self-expression, and for community.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Michael Ho (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 11:05am

    Re: Hmmm, not sure about this

    I sorta wonder if you're setting up "moving goal posts" for the criteria of writing fiction. In Artificial Intelligence research, people used to say "you'll never have a computer that will beat a human at chess" -- and they don't say that anymore. But people still say, "computers can't match humans at doing X still -- or they don't play chess the same way humans do." Some AI researchers complain that the bar for intelligence keeps getting higher every time they achieve a new milestone for intelligent software.

    Basically, I think we have to step back and try to recognize where crowdsourced fiction (or crowdwork in general) might have advantages and not try to focus on its shortcomings. Crowdwork may not be good for all things, but it might be very good (or better) for certain tasks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Michael Ho (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 11:15am

    Re: Artist experiments

    Heh. Well the combined work of electricians and plumbers are already well-known... usually in the form of buildings and houses. Houses are generally "crowdsourced" by default. :P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    hegemon13, Oct 28th, 2009 @ 12:01pm

    Re: Re: Hmmm, not sure about this

    Don't get me wrong--I love the idea of crowdsourcing in a lot of areas. I just can't think of an application where it would be a good way to write fiction. Background stories for role-playing game companies, maybe?

    In any case, I don't think I was setting up goal posts at all, just highlighting that fiction is a pretty unique animal with qualities that make individual or small-group authorship more effective. Quality fiction also requires a level of skill and dedication that is not common. I do not believe that crowdsourced fiction will be able to effectively achieve the essential elements I laid out in my previous post. Few people have the skill to achieve them when they have full control over a story. The more meddlers, the less consistent and more cliched the story is likely to become.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Oct 28th, 2009 @ 1:14pm

    Re: Re: Re: Hmmm, not sure about this

    I belong to a figure skating mailing list. A number of years ago someone created a fictional Eastern European skater and posted her story on the list. Many people jumped in to embellish and add details. It was pretty funny. It worked because there wasn't a story line as such. Well, there was to some extent, with people posting how she was doing at a particular competition, but it was free to wander off in various directions. Occasionally someone would toss in something that was out of "character" for the skater or was likely to finish off the saga prematurely, so someone else who jump in and say, "No, that part isn't true."

    At any rate, it was a free form example of fictional writing that was better because of all the contributions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    David Hamburgh, Nov 3rd, 2009 @ 2:33pm

    Hmmm, not sure about this

    So come on, why not try out the potential of collaborative writing at Zazew?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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