Let’s Get Together and Feel All Write
Collaboration and crowdsourcing. The stimulating and sinister sides of the writer’s social media toolbox
Crowdsourcing is a hot topic right now. And if not right now, then it will be very soon when Neil Gaiman’s crowdsourcing twitter project takes off. It started when ad companies started asking members of the public for ideas instead of ad execs. And other high-profile projects seem to be doing a similar thing: Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Platform in Trafalgar Square, for example. Trinny and Susannah’s enormous naked sculpture. World of Warcraft and I Love Bees. Spencer Tunick assembling people on the stairs of Selfridges and getting them to undress. And all of it seems to have its roots in flashmobbing, and the We-Think collaborative mentality of the Net. Right?
Wrong. Collaboration is a buzzword right now. And hurrah for that. Crowds are cool. The collective brain sees things the individual cannot. But. But but but but but…
Crowds are, to mix more metaphors than a stag night cocktail, the thing end of a semantic bandwagon wedge. We see lots of people doing things – lots of normal people, and we think it’s great. An example of collaboration, of “the new democracy”. But the truth is less simple.
Back in March, I started writing a novel on Facebook called The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes. The idea was to get readers involved in the process of shaping the story by letting them tell me which of my characters and plotlines they liked, and which they didn’t; to give them a glimpse behind the story-telling curtain by taking them through the process of editing, from first draft to completion; and to end up delivering both a story and an experience they would really enjoy.
This article arose out of the reaction to that project. Back in April, my local newspaper, The Oxford Mail, ran a piece about the project. It was a nice, fun piece, and I got new members to the Facebook group who seemed to enjoy what I was doing. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I was, OK there’s no way of avoiding the embarrassing fact I was googling the title, that I discovered some local readers had taken against what I was doing. Admittedly the title of the piece “Help Dan write his new book” wasn’t particularly helpful, but the article was light-hearted and I thought the reporter had done a pretty good job of making head or tale of my mumbled ramblings.
The reaction I got wasn’t what I’d expected at all. I was accused of pilfering ideas from other people because I didn’t have enough of my own. I was exploiting my readers, taking their ideas and passing them off as my own.
I was accused, that is to say, of crowdsourcing.
So what is the difference between crowdsourcing and collaboration? Why is the latter cool, and the former deeply uncool?
And is the picture more complicated still? (Of course, I want to introduce a third category, one to which Gormley belongs. The category of the public auteur.
Crowdsourcing and collaboration share the following features: they both seek to generate ideas; they both do so through the medium of large numbers of people.
But these are the differences: crowdsourcing is designed to answer a specific question or generate a particular idea; collaboration blows with the wind, follows interesting avenues, often starts out with very little idea where it’s going, and is happy to see what happens. Crowdsourcing involves people who have been brought together; collaboration involves people coming together. In crowdsourcing the ownership of the idea rests with the person or group who brought the crowd together; in collaboration, no one – not even the crowd – owns the ideas: the ideas have a life of their own and move around without regard to boundaries or ownership.
In other words, crowdsourcing is exploitative – of the crowd; of ideas. As such it belongs with the ad agencies. It belongs in the market – in that context, the context of commodification and commerciality, indeed, it is actually rather interesting. In the world of art it would be rather dull. If it weren’t for the fact it’s rather dangerous. Because there’s a hoodwink going on. The sourced crowds often believe they are part of something cool. Of something collaborative. They’re not. They’re cogs. Which is fine if you perceive yourself to be a cog and are cool with it.
That’s why I was so upset to be accused of crowdsourcing.
So how does collaboration work differently from this? I want to look at a couple of examples. You know Jenn Topper. She wrote the awesome flash fiction Basking in Conformity, and the moving piece My Drunk, Dead Cousin for this site. She’s also fiery, opinionated, articulate, and spot on the zeitgeist blogger. And what you may not know is she’s the mastermind behind a fabulous collaborative project, The Diary of Sam Gregory, a neat twist on Kafka’s Metamorphosis where different writers each take random turns in posting as Sam.
There are real problems with collaboration. It can be a sprawling, seething, directionless mess. It can end in fallings out and fights. But it can be exciting and enriching and invigorating along the way (usually, it has to be said, for the participants more than the audience – who can find the lack of a single editor somewhat self-indulgent).
Collaboration isn’t new, of course. Think of Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees’ book Coming Together, written as a series of e-mails. Or Ellery Queen’s detective novels.
So this is collaboration – different voices working together to produce a single project – which belongs not to any one of them but to the collaboration – a project whose voice is a blend of its participants but where the tone and timbre of the blend is more important than who those participants are.
Which is very different from Gormley’s Platform 4. Sure the finished result is what it is because of the blend of participants. But that’s not the whole story. The story is Gormley’s collection of these disparate voices and his positioning of them in a particular context. It is an example of classical auteurship. So what makes Platform 4 – or Tunick’s portraits – or the Barbican Centre’s “I Love Brahms” wall NOT crowdsourcing? Why is it OK to be an auteur and not OK to be a crowdsourcer? And can I explain it without resorting to that boring Indie no-brainer that one’s about commerciality and the other is about art?
Yes I can. Being an auteur is about not hoodwinking people. It’s about saying “I’ve got an idea and it involves you, and I’m going to get you to do stuff but within these parameters – parameters set by me.” A crowdsourcer will cajole you that you’re part of something democratic and cool (note: if anyone ever tells you what they’re doing is either democratic or cool, chances are it’s neither). Crowdsourcers pretend the ideas are yours. They pull the strings behind the scenes to wring the best out of you. They exploit. Auteurs pull the strings too, but they tend not to pretend otherwise.
So what about us? Writers let loose in a world of possibilities. We can be any of these things. I have a feeling Neil Gaiman, much as I love his stuff, is in the business of crowdsourcing (I don’t think it’s necessarily his fault – he’s so big and so huge that people will feel they’re part of something original and innovative and THEIRS even though they’re not). Jenn is in the business of collaboration. An author like MCM, mastermind of last month’s marvellous 3D1D experiment where he wrote a novel live over three days, weaving his readers into the fabric of the text, is a classic showman auteur. As writers, we can be any of the three – but I think it will help the sharpness of what we do if we are clear in our heads beforehand which kind of activity we’re engaged in.
And us, in the more specific sense, what about us? Year Zero Writers. A few of us have noticed how our writings and interests are converging, speaking to each other. For me, it’s inspiring being alongside you all, playing with the sparks our conversations generate, and – in the lead-up to 13 Shadows and the wake of our “new” debate – I’ve felt a very strong pull being exerted by Marc’s remarkable little piece on writing pain. Not just on my own writing, but on that of others – as though his question – how can we write the reader’s pain? – is hovering over each of our heads.
I want to answer “what are we?” by positing a fourth kind of project. We are not crowdsourcing – I hope that much is clear. For all the influence of Marc’s piece I don’t think there is anything auteurish about Year Zero. Nor are we a collaboration – there is no one project going on here (please discuss the metaproject, though, in the light of my favourite image of the rolling maul). We all work on our own thing – with our own voice. It’s very easy to call ourselves a collective, but it’s more than that. A collective is simply a set of individuals, and we’ve gone beyond that.
We play off each other, influence each other, but most of all we have two things in common. We believe writers should do it their way and bugger anyone telling us otherwise. And we’re asking a set of common questions about writing, storytelling, and the human condition. And looking to each other for help in understanding our own answers.
I’ve been trying to think of a closing line for days, but the best I could come up with is this:
We are not crowdsourcers
We are not collaborators
We are not auteurs
We are not a collective
We are not a group
We are not a movement
We are not Indie
We are not punk
We are Year Zero.