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Reflections on Boston: People Screwed Up, Not Crowdsourcing

23 Apr
Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Image © 2013 Next Media Animation

Ohh, these have been a maddening last few days. The U.S. sort of went to hell last week, and at the center of it all we had the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent panic, finger-pointing, racism, media incompetence, armchair investigation, death threats, and basic reminders that we, as a species, are not that great.

But of course, you’re here because you want to read about crowdsourcing. Throughout this story unfolding, internet denizens gathered on social media outlets, mainly Reddit, to collect information, speculate on as-yet-uncovered details, and attempt to reduce confusion. Which is fine! That’s what Reddit is for; collecting all of the Internet into one place where just the good stuff rises to the surface. The problem arises when certain people decide to take this information and, because they are obviously smarter than the FBI, CIA, and Boston PD combined, attempt to find the perpetrators of the bombings before the authorities do.

Alright, let’s do a rundown of who in this narrative is making me angry (hint: everyone):

  • Redditors. Not as a whole. Reddit is everyone; that is its beauty. I’m mad at the Redditors who had the gall to think they were smarter than the tens of thousands of investigating officials. What leads a person to believe that just because they have a few blurry citizen photographs and some other Internet Detectives on their side, they are better at solving crimes than entities with sophisticated investigation techniques, access to innumerable surveillance sources, a network of collaborators, and the support of the U.S. Government? Glory, maybe. The idea that they can achieve Internet fame for cracking the case. But, that’s The Internet. Some people on it are idiots. I know that, and you know that, but do you know who apparently didn’t know that?
  • Mass Media. The Internet will wildly speculate on anything and everything, but that doesn’t make it fact. What makes a fact is confirmation, proof, and sources. You know, things major news outlets are supposed to get before they report that some random student is probably the bomber. But, of course, as soon as Reddit came up with the name of a dark-skinned male who was possibly a little suspicious, news outlets unfortunately ran with it. With the help of Reddit itself, this poor individual’s family was harassed with countless accusations that their relative was the Boston Bomber. All false, of course. No one knew the identity of the suspects until (surprise!) their names were released by the FBI. Not Reddit, not NBC, not Twitter: the real, honest-to-God government agents who were investigating the case. Turns out they can do their jobs after all!
  • Internet Journalists. Specifically the ones who are liberal with their use of the word “crowdsourcing”. After the events of this story shook out, many were quick to blame crowdsourcing for the colossal amount of incompetence that went down. I’ve got a news flash for all of them: what happened here wasn’t an example of “crowdsourcing” by any definition of the word. What many forget is that aside from the presence of a crowd, the equally important component of crowdsourcing is the controlling entity, the person or people directing the crowd. It’s what separates this story from the time that crowdsourcing actually did solve a murder mystery. What we have here is crowdsourcing with a complete lack of compartmentalization; without a leader steering them towards a common goal, the crowd governs themselves. I should hope I don’t have to tell you how well that sort of thing typically works out.
  • Media Consumers. Yeah, I’m in this boat and so are all of you. We’re the reason for the 24-hour news cycle, we’re the reason that fact-checking is passé and editorialized headlines are the norm. We’re the reason the media will jump on the opportunity to place the blame on any brown kid they can find. And we’re the reason that Reddit posts saying “hey guys, maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and let the authorities do their jobs” got downvoted straight to hell. We demand answers more than we demand correct answers, and our constant yearning for entertainment has turned the news into what at times feels like a constant stream of barely-relevant information. I know this is well-trodden ground at this point, and that I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said fifty times before by people much smarter than me. I don’t care. I’m angry anyway.

I think if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that the Internet has made many people forget their places. The fact that information can travel so quickly from brain to fingers to keyboard to THE WHOLE WORLD and onto a new brain makes people think that they can solve mysteries better than the pros. These are people who dedicate their lives to these things, and chances are they’re better at it than the random Internet denizen. Let them do their jobs.

People on Reddit are supposed to gather and share information; they don’t investigate crimes, finger suspects, or make Facebook raids. The media reports what is happening in the world, once they’re absolutely sure that it is indeed happening. If they see something worth reporting on Reddit, they are perfectly within their rights to do so, but they are obligated to make sure it’s true first. And the viewers of the news are supposed to watch it, not demand it. Demand for news leads to fabrication of news.

Everyone, please take a breather, recoup, and kindly go about your business.

Step by Step: The Incremental Approach to Crowdsourcing

1 Apr

Do you like electronic music? If so, listen to this new Avicii song, “X You”:

As you may have guessed, crowdsourcing produced this song. Avicii spent the last three months collecting musical samples from his fans, evaluating them, and presenting the best ones back to the crowd for them to pick their favorite. Bit by bit, from bassline to breakdown, his fans created one of the first crowdsourced pieces of music.

I’m calling this method the incremental approach to crowdsourcing; it involves a time-consuming but vigorous process of polling, discussion, and idea submission, with each cycle adding a tiny bit to the final product. It’s not the easiest or most resource-conservative way to crowdsource, but when the planets align and the controlling entity jumps into it with both feet, it can provide truly dazzling results.

Take Wizards of the Coast (WotC), for example, the company that makes the popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. They recently started the fourth iteration of their “You Make The Card” campaign, which allows fans to help them create a card that will appear in a future release. We’ve also seen this approach utilized by Nissan, who used the help of their Facebook fans to build a limited-release performance racing vehicle. In both campaigns, the company built something great by letting their fans choose what went into it with a multi-step process that took several months.

How It Works

All three of these campaigns followed a shockingly uniform series of steps. The contest begins with the most general parts of the project and moves to the specific. For Avicii, the beginning was the song’s melody; WotC started with the card type, and Nissan first asked for an exhaust system that would do justice for the car’s engine. The crowd voices their opinion on which of several options should go onto the next round, and then the next piece is selected to be added on. More discussion, more voting, more submissions; rinse and repeat until you have a complete product.

It’s important to note here the distinction between incremental and iterative development. Both consist of several periods of discussion, voting, and designing; the main difference is what is produced at each step. Incremental development adds a new thing to the project each time; a new sound effect to a song, or a new ability on a card, or a new set of tires on a car. Iterative development, by contrast, would design the entire product at once, and then make it a little bit better better with each progressive pass. This is sometimes the method used to create Wikipedia pages, in which a heap of information is dumped onto a blank page and slowly pared down, edited, formatted, and given citations in the coming days.

What Makes It Great

The incremental approach isn’t for everyone; you need a ready-built fanbase that is not only numerous, but dedicated. Avicii is one of the most popular DJs in the world, Nissan is a multi-billion-dollar auto-industry leader, and Magic: The Gathering players have been dutifully flipping cardboard for the last 20 years. Because of this, these entities can afford to hold a contest that stretches out over months, where those less popular may find their crowds losing steam after the first few weeks.

Additionally, when designing a product where every piece of it needs to work well with every other piece, the incremental approach ensures that the crowd doesn’t get ahead of itself and the work is easy enough to swallow. If WotC had attacked this project using the iterative approach, they would have faced the tremendously difficult task of sorting through several thousand card submissions, some of which likely being completely unusable. By instead uniting its crowd on each consecutive step, WotC streamlines the conversation surrounding its project and focuses its audience on the task at hand, while not losing sight of the upcoming steps and the end goal.

Compare this to a project where each piece is designed individually. It’s been said (but never concretely attributed) that a camel is a horse designed by committee. This brings to mind a product that is designed simultaneously by several entities that have conflicting interests in the final outcome; some may want it to have functionality or features that the other groups aren’t interested in or actively oppose. In this manner, parallel design by many sub-groups of a crowd can create a product that while unique and novel, doesn’t really accomplish any one goal to a satisfactory degree.

It also helps that all three of the entities I am using for examples show great adhesion to the three tenets of successful crowdsourcing, as I’ve mentioned before with WotC and Nissan. Avicii also hits all the marks of incentive, barrier to entry, and compartmentalization; his fans are more than willing to put in the effort for the chance to hear something they created get blasted on the radio or through nightclub speakers, the submission process for samples was simple and available on social media channels Avicii’s fans frequented, and the incremental approach ensured that each new piece of music was carefully planned and fit with everything before it.

The Juice is Worth The Squeeze

I would love to see more companies use this approach in the future to replace the standard “contest” model of crowdsourcing that really only allows input from one creative mind. The incremental approach is truly the right choice for entities that want to tap into the collective knowledge of their entire crowd, with an added bonus of collecting market research as they go. Even if Nissan doesn’t end up using Exhaust System C, they will still know what their fans think of it after the contest is completed. WotC’s You Make The Card not only gave them the final product, but also inspired entire mechanics that went on to become very well-loved.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve seen a company use this approach to achieve great (or not-so-great) results, or if there’s someone who you think would benefit from changing their approach to this one.

Crowdfunding Crash Course: How To Make Your Campaign A Successful One

6 Feb

Marguerite Caruana Galizia - CrowdfundingI used to have a sort of embargo against articles about crowdfunding. It wasn’t that I didn’t see a place for it, or thought it was an illegitimate way to make money; I just thought that there wasn’t really any depth to the topic worth talking about.

But, times change, and a few articles later, I find that crowdfunding has really come into its own as a subject worth introducing to my readers. To that end, I was thrilled when I discovered that a dancing blog, of all places, had written up an excellent guide on how someone with no knowledge of crowdfunding could set up a project and get their dreams funded. Below, you will find my summary of the guide’s sticking points, originally compiled by Marguerite Galizia and presented on her personal blog.

What is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is a way to get your projects, personal campaigns, and product ideas funded without going to a wealthy backer or company with deep pockets, and anyone with a dream and a video camera can do it.

Through sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and GoFundMe, users can create “project pages” where they show their idea to the world. These pages typically consist of a video, showing off the idea and its creator, and a written statement that goes into a little more detail. They specify their goal, or how much money they need to fully find their project, and a time frame for completion. The public views these entries, and donates money to those that they wish to see carried through. They are rewarded for donating certain amounts with a gift from the project creator, usually some sort of token of esteem or similar “thank you”. Depending on the site this project is posted on, the creator may get to keep all the money they’ve been given, or may only get paid if their project reaches its goal amount.

Step 1: Choosing Your Platform

When starting your campaign, the first thing to decide is where to host it. There are a multitude of crowdfunding sites available, and more keep popping up every day, so this is not a decision to be taken lightly. When choosing a site, one should consider factors such as the fees involved, the site’s level of professionalism, the countries the platform caters to, and which types of projects the site has made successful in the past.

Galizia’s article goes into more detail on things like the fee structures of these sites, if you’re curious, but the important thing to remember is to find a site that looks like a good fit for whatever type of project you’re doing. If you’re trying to start an art school, sites that fund scientific discoveries probably won’t do you much good. Similarly, if the site you’re using isn’t doesn’t provide service to your country, you’ll likely find it impossible to get any funding at all.

Step 2: Make Your Pitch

Arguably the most important step! Your pitch will introduce your idea to the world, and more importantly, it will introduce you to your potential donors. The strength of your pitch can make or break a campaign, so it’s important to make sure there are a few things you absolutely don’t miss. First among those is to have a clearly defined goal; your aim should be a finished, tangible thing that other people can use or consume. This can be a finished product, a book or movie, or even an entire company, but few people will fork over their money for the promise of things to come. Have something to show for your campaign when it’s over.

Also important to include in your pitch is some personal background on your project and yourself. Nothing opens wallets faster than when someone feels personally involved in your project, so start by making them personally involved in you! Explain your passion in a way that is simple and genuine, and emphasize that your donors are investing not only in the finished project, but in your own future. If they fund this project, who knows what else they’ll see from you someday!

Finally, choose your rewards carefully. For some donors, the rewards provide a large portion of their incentive to help, so make it worth their while. This doesn’t mean pull out all the stops, of course; your budget is obviously limited if you’re crowdfunding in the first place! But it does mean to cater your rewards to your audience. Galizia emphasizes that you should offer “bragging rights” rewards over “involvement” rewards. What this means is that people want to show off that they helped the project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be a direct part of it. Put their name in the credits, or send them a prop from your movie, or a signed picture from the people involved, but don’t ask them to, for example, put their lives on hold to appear in a cameo role.

Step 3: Promote, Promote, Promote!

If you’ve got your pitch all set up, your final step is to get that page in front of as many eyes as humanly possible before your campaign ends. For someone who doesn’t have extensive experience in promotion, where to begin could be a bit of a mystery, but rule of thumb says to start with people you know. Friends and family are already invested in your future, and early donations from them will appear on your page and help your project gain traction.

Standard print materials can also be a good bet. Having a physical flyer or card to hand to your personal contacts could encourage them to tell someone else about it, with the added bonus that they don’t have to memorize the project’s details. Posters could also be a good bet, especially if they are displayed in areas where people likely to support your project gather. And there’s always real-world newspapers, which may be interested in running a story or advertisement calling attention to your campaign. Besides, senior citizens read newspapers, and they’ve got that retirement money.

Naturally, there is also the Internet and social media, which are as always fantastic channels for spreading the word. Facebook and Twitter blasts will make sure your followers are aware of what you’re doing, and that they can in turn tell their friends about it. You can also locate online communities, forums, and blogs that may be interested in your project, and make posts on their sites promoting your idea. You could even start your own blog about the project, which has the dual benefit of providing publicity and keeping your donors abreast of current project developments.

Go Forth and Get Funded!

If ideas are the only currency you trade in (out of necessity), crowdfunding is a great way to get your name out there, promote your dreams, and have a ready-made fanbase when your project comes to fruition. I’d like to thank Marguerite Galizia for putting together a great guide on the subject, which again, you should view in its original form if you’d like more information on any part of this guide.

Until next time, may the crowd be ever in your favor!

 

OpenStudy’s Mechanical MOOC Collaboration Teaches You Python, Is Predictably Awesome

23 Aug

MOOC

Were you aware that I love OpenStudy? The crowdsourced study space was one of the first examples I found of a platform that really accomplishes something that could only be done through crowdsourcing, and I’ve been proudly singing its praises ever since.

So naturally, when yet another fantastic new update landed in my inbox, I expected greatness and was not disappointed. OpenStudy has teamed up with some very heavy hitters to create Mechanical MOOC, a massive online open course that will teach users how to program using the Python language.

The collaboration will take the strongest aspects of several platforms and combine them for the ultimate learning experience. OpenStudy, with their fantastic discussion and organization tools, will provide the collaboration aspects; MIT’s OpenCourseWare takes care of the subject material; Codecademy provides the tests and exercises; and the whole thing comes together on Peer 2 Peer University’s established online course space.

This melding of giants should set the standard for ambitious crowdsourcing efforts, especially because it’s so rare to see one company, let alone four, that is able to swallow its pride and admit that a competitor has certain better features. The fact that these companies would team up to provide a service that none of them could provide on their own? Well, that’s the sort of thing that just makes someone all warm and fuzzy inside.

Could you imagine if other companies took their cue from this? If we started seeing computers with Microsoft features, Apple user-friendliness, and Google applications? A fast food restaurant that had Big Macs, Checkers fries, and Starbucks coffee? Or heck, just one social network that combines the best parts of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Pinterest, and Last.fm? How cool of a world would that be?

Sign up for the class (which starts on October 15) and see what can happen when companies put aside their differences for the greater good.

I’m Not Sure How To Feel About Crowdsourced Fashion

21 Aug

ModCloth.com

Online clothing retailer ModCloth recently rolled out their Retro Honor Roll Collection, inspired by creations submitted by their community and supported by designs from the ModCloth co-founder. In terms of how I view crowdsourcing, I’m at a bit of an impasse in reacting to this development. Is fashion the sort of thing that can, or should, be crowdsourced?

The Argument in Favor

We’ve seen the success of crowdsourced clothing with our own eyes. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Threadless, the community-inspired t-shirt outlet that some might say led the initial charge in crowdsourced fashion designs. In Threadless, we find a company that has leveraged an excellent community and a winning business model to make oodles (non-scientific term) of cash and some really exceptionally popular shirts. Additionally, their service often gives a leg-up to amateur designers, who may find stardom after their design gets approved.

ModCloth’s campaign also turned out very successful, with as much as 40% of the articles in stock selling out in the first day alone. Looking at the designs, one can’t help but offer a nod of approval; they don’t look like they were made by a committee of amateurs, but instead like any other professionally designed piece of apparel. In these examples, we see that crowdsourced clothing doesn’t have to be a disaster.

On the Other Hand…

Is this what you want?!

When I laid out what makes some crowdsourcing efforts successful, I made it a point to state that some industries are doomed from the start if they try to crowdsource because their areas of interest are too broad. Fashion dangerously straddles this line; not everyone is a fashionista, but the majority of people wear clothes and have some sort of opinion on them. In terms of crowdsourcing, this is a dangerous mix, since the design experts are the minority and the clothes-wearers are (for the most part) ignorant of what makes up “good fashion”. Make your contest too public, and you get swarms of people who think it would be a really great idea to have a plaid-and-polka-dot suit. Make it too private, and it may as well not exist.

Granted, this conundrum is not limited to the world of fashion, but it’s a little more tangible since (as I mentioned) the wearing of clothes is one thing that binds many of us together. Not only is it ubiquitous, but important; a large-scale shift in fashion can very well define an era. When something like this deeply affects everyone involved, crowdsourcing it could make people nervous. Think about it this way; would you want people crowdsourcing the quality of the air you breathe? The question of “what if they’re wrong?” looms large, and even a small chance of failure is enough to send many people in the opposite direction.

The Battle For Chic

Regardless of my feelings on the subject, crowdsourced fashion is here to stay. As with practically any other effort that asks for help from a crowd, said crowd is the main determinant of the campaign’s success. If you’re the type of person who’s fashion-minded, the best possible thing for you to do would be to sign up for as many of these sites as possible and lend them your good taste.

But if you’re like me, and your idea of fashion is “as long as my belt sorta matches my shoes, I’m home free”… well, maybe leave the fashion to the experts.

Case Study: What We Learned From Mountain Dew

16 Aug

By now, you may have heard of the fiasco that was Mountain Dew’s “Dub The Dew” contest, where they crowdsourced the name for their new Granny-Smith-apple-flavored Dew. If you’re a dedicated reader, you already see where I’m going with this. I’ll just cut to the chase, since this picture pretty much sums it up:

Disaster area. 4chan’s /b/ board got ahold of it, and in their typical fashion, overwhelmed the contest with their sheer numbers and pushed all the other entries out of the top 10 positions, replacing them with flavors like “Gushing Granny”, “Diabeetus”, and “Hitler did nothing wrong”. As of my writing this, the contest site is blank, but the damage is done.

Fortunately, we can make a case study out of this and actually learn something. Here are a few tips for dealing with your crowd if you happen to be a big company holding a contest on the Internet:

  • Seriously. Know your audience. I can’t be the first person to tell Mountain Dew that their product is overwhelmingly consumed people who use the Internet a LOT. The law of averages hurts Dew in this case, since it would stand to reason that at least one of these Internet users would tell 4chan about the contest, and this is not the sort of low-hanging fruit 4chan leaves alone. Especially because you didn’t…
  • Validate your contributions. If this is a real contest, treat it like one. Make people sign up to enter or vote, even if it’s just Facebook validation. It’s annoying, and you’ll lose some voters, but you won’t have as many cases of the sort of chaos that pure anonymity can breed. Look at Lay’s Facebook contest to name a new potato chip flavor; I don’t see any “Fapulous Apple” there. A little accountability goes a long way, especially when it means that you can block offending accounts or IP addresses. Speaking of technological failures…
  • Security is still super important. See that bit of anti-Israel vitriol at the top of the screenshot? Surprisingly, Mountain Dew didn’t put that there themselves. That was the result of a hacker with the smallest amount of talent and five spare minutes. See, the site lacked something called “input validation”, meaning that programming code entered in the contest entry box would actually appear on the website. It’s a little complicated, and explained better in this Reddit thread, but the gist of it is that this was Web Security 101, completely and easily avoidable, and Mountain Dew dropped the ball. I’m sure this didn’t help vote hacking, either.

So it looks like Mountain Dew threw together this contest with minimal research or development, and now they’re receiving results indicative of their lack of effort. The sad thing is, this is the sort of event that makes entire industries shy away from crowdsourcing as a method. But it’s just that: a way to do things, a tool. If you hold a hammer by the wrong end, it’s not gonna get that nail down, and you’re gonna look like a freakin’ idiot in the process.

Learn, and try again.

The Final Frontier: Crowdsourced Romance?

7 Aug

Write My RomanceI’d be lying if I said it never occurred to me that romantic encounters could be crowdsourced. My problem lied in the process of transferring this insanely complicated series of human interactions  into a simple platform that would achieve results.

I have not found such a platform, but I have found someone who’s willing to give the thing a shot. Sola Puella (“Single Girl” in Latin) has just started a blog called “Write My Romance“,  where she intends to crowdsource her so-far-unsuccessful dating life. Through a series of posts detailing her past relationships, recounting date experiences, and stating what she looks for in a soulmate, she hopes to solicit advice from her readers and perfect her own dating process.

She’s started off well. I have to give her big props for including her extensive back-history. No two people are the same, and things that happened in the past can have big ramifications on the future. It’s good, then, that her readers can see what’s worked (and hasn’t worked) in Sola’s past, and change their recommendations accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Gustafsson

© 2010 Stefan Gustafsson

In terms of the crowdsourcing aspects, so far it looks like Sola is just after unbiased, objective advice. This in itself is a fine pursuit for any sort of romantic; we’re often blind to simple solutions for our personal problems, and the friends and family Sola already has may share a similar blindness or be inclined to give less than truthful advice to spare Sola’s feelings. The Internet will offer no such buffers.

If Sola wishes to integrate more crowdsourcing aspects into her dating journey, there are options available to her. Dating sites like OkCupid and PlentyOfFish are as close to crowdsourcing as a romantic service can come. I recently reported on WeGoLook, which could scope out potential dates before she wastes her time on an obvious dud. And once she finds someone promising, she could use sites like Schemer to find the perfect date idea.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Sola Puella’s progress, and hopefully I’ll have the chance to talk to her personally and find out a little more about the drive behind this endeavor. Should she find this process fruitful, I have no doubts that single men and women will be banging down her door to learn her secrets.

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