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.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 7, 2009.

32 Responses to “Let’s Get Together and Feel All Write”

  1. Absolutely fascinating. hadn’t heard the term crowdsourcing before but it seems an obvious adjunct to the way social media is moving. I am now approached by PRs far more for my blogging (which I barely even do nowadays) than for my journalism, which is a fascinating turnaround.
    Can creativity ever be nourished by the hive? Or will it descend to lowest common demoninator? I sometimes love the idea of collaboration (writing is lonely) but then not sure I could give up control either.
    Are we being exploited online? I would say probably certainly.
    Sorry, all rather jumbled here but great post.

  2. Jane, what I’d really love to know is how you pereceive the content you’re being asked for in a blog as being different from that you are asked for in journalism. Are you being asked for a more provocative style? Less research (or more)? more links and entertainment, that kind of thing. Is it, in other words, simply that the journalism has moved to the blogosphere, or is theer a substantive difefernce in content now? I know that blogs can mean lots of different things (Jonathan Fields did a fascinating piece on his Awake at the Wheel blog about the difference between very content-rich but infrequent blogs and content-low but entertaining and regular ones). Since I started writing, I’ve had people approach me for articles (not fiction though), which never happened before – some of it is blog work (The Indie Handbook), but that’s very much more like an ezine (likewise when I write articles here I make a conscious effort to have more detail than my shorter, chattier pieces on the personal blog), but I’ve lso found magazine work.

    “Can creativity ever be nourished by the hive? Or will it descend to lowest common demoninator?”
    That’s the $64m question. My feeling is that it will either descend or ascend and that the difference is something almost alchemical and totally unpredictable. What I am pretty SURE of though, is the moment a group thinks it’s found the secret and is “all that”, the quality they had takes a nosedive. But it’s very easy for groups to be self-congratulatory if they get praise – it happens to band all the time – think, God rest Joe Strummer’s soul, of the Clash.

    The only real answer is for a collaboration t allow itself to enjoy the experience but never to take the outside world seriously – either the opprobium OR the praise, and focus only on making what it does better.

  3. Bravo, with romantic roll of the R that we don’t ever pronounce in American.

    The distinctions you point out are so relevant in today’s convergence of media. Where someone attempts innovation, most people can only assume they are being exploited by a marketing machine, which is all they know. (I’m not justifying the comments from Oxford Mail, but when all sheep know is how to follow, they demonize those who don’t follow.)

    To me there’s nothing more exciting than deconstructing the novel, the character, the writing process and structures we all to safely assume are fundamentals. If experiments fail, it doesn’t signify that the artistic experiment isn’t art–it still is.

    Auteurs never liked the groups projects in school, because no one could keep up with them (ahem). But we learn throughout life that collaboration and compromise can also cultivate a perspective and learning of our artistic environments that we never would have had before. I couldn’t admit that when I was younger and more impetuous, stubborn, and overconfident. I’ve learned that a little humility actually keeps my mind open; and drives my aspirations even further.

    On collaborative projects, nothing is harder than inciting the same inspiration you have as starter/leader. But then that’s not an artistic problem, it’s an age-old management problem.

    No one is an island.

    Thanks for the plug, by the way, you are awesome. I am proud to be Year Zero with you and the other brilliants.


    • Jenn, it’s an honour to have you on board. A question to which I’m genuinel not sure if there’s an answer: is it possible to have collaboration without compromise? Or is the key learning that what you gain is more than what you lose?

      • I think what I was trying to say in connection with compromise and humility is that one can only be truly brilliant with the cooperation of others–whether they are editors, beta-readers/viewers, and even the spectator/audience. My 3-year old, for example–and probably even his 1-year old brother–probably thinks he’s the only genius in the world since everything is new. Everything he does by himself is sheer magnificence–buttoning a shirt, zipping his jacket, cutting a circle, tracing an M. He’ll learn later that he can only truly be brilliant as others look on view his actions as something they couldn’t accomplish.

        In grownupland, this is compromise. Recognizing that we are doing something for others, and not ourselves. Compromise is built in inherently to non-sociopathic humans. For artists, *I belive* (controversy) that compromise is necessary because then, our works wouldn’t be viewed or read at all. The act of showing is compromise.

        How’s that for an overly philosophical response.


      • “Recognizing that we are doing something for others, and not ourselves.” You’re damn right that’s controversial, Jenn. We are SO used to hearing that greatness is about a person’s single-minded determination to pursue their goal and their steamrolling through anything – including help or critique – that gets in their way. You have no idea how good it is to hear someone sticking up for the fact that a certain amount of sociability amkes us not only better people but better artists.

      • it could have been because i became a mother that i was able to realize the selflessness in great art. i don’t know that i could have opened my eyes to the importance of audience if i didn’t have kids–for whom just about everything i do is for them.

  4. I work around journalists in my day job and the debate about blogs and news content online is a live one. The feeling is the news article should stick to the facts as uncovered by good journalist practice. You can still editorialise and comment. But a blog might give a personal flavour behind the news – an opinion, an impression, without presenting it as hard fact. Say you’re in a Courtroom covering a major case, the news article reports the facts, the blog can paint the equivalent of the artist’s impression…

    Anyhoo, that’s not really what I wanted to comment on here. For me online/social media crowdsourcing is fraught with socio-economic limitations – at present, only certain classes are geared up to participate. To me crowdsourcing is a fancy term for focus groups beloved of marketers. And the artists’ palette of focus groups to draw on is a limited one indeed as things stand.

    While I do sort of see the distinction you’re making between the two, much of that can be ameliorated by proper attribution. An appendix to a collaborative project can trace in an interesting way the genesis of the finished work and whose contribution took it in a new direction or dovetailed nicely with what was already there…

    From the etymology, we are a collective in the sense of a gathering. Drawn by what unites our visions, but not that we co-labour as a collaborative.

    Me, I rarely trust the crowd mentality anyway. There are always drones, soldier ants and queens with any honeycomb hive.


    • Marc, thanks for elaborating.

      I think you are making two separate points? First is that crowdsourcing can be made less exploitative – which I guess is enjoining the social/moral debate? Second is that in collaborative projects (which I wasn’t actually dreiding but praising) full audit-trails (maybe, and interestingly, JUST a series of times and IP addresses?) can add layers of meaning to an already interesting project (which would nonetheless have to be experienced in its unattributed state first to be understood from the inside on both levels)? Is that a fair teasing apart of your points?

  5. Whatever’s going on here, it’s new, exciting and inspiring for all of us,and that’s largely thanks to you, Dan.In an age of such rapid change it will inevitably evolve too. I now feel I will be able to interpret different social media and artistic projects with more idea about what I’m looking for, so thank you for that.

  6. Didn’t realise you were accused of crowdsourcing. I don’t agree with one of your points: I think that we could be called a group. We don’t all have to work on the same project to be considered one.

    I think that in many ways we’re working towards a common goal, and that is to show writers that they can get their work directly to their audience without having to pigeon-hole it to suit the masses (or what the gatekeepers think the masses want, or even what the gatekeepers TELL the masses they want).

    I think I missed a few lines because the white writing on the dark background in this font size is very hard to read when bunched up. Would it be possible to change our font size or type within the paragraphs?

    You’ve given me a lot to think about here, Dan. One thing I know is that it’s possible to write someone else’s pain. I’ve read too many things in my life where my pain was expressed, not to believe that a writer can do just that.

    Anne L-G

    • The paragraphing got messed up intransit – sorry!

      The mantra at the end isn’t so much designed as a statement as an encouragement not to get too bogged down in semantics and not to spend too much time worrying but just to do what we do best – write (just like you say)

  7. Timely! Technology deports itself the Thing, It, Cool, the Class and everyone (well, almost everyone) follows along. Herd mentalities led astray or right where the advertisers want them. Very clever concepts, seemingly ‘go with the crowd’ as it were, but all very orchestrated, manipulated. We’re really being stretched thin on the wire I think – on one hand we have the ‘open source’ potentials with collaboration and connection, on the other we have the mock-fascist reiteration of an old AT&T ad: ‘You will.’ And we have.

    No matter what names they put to it, it’s all the same game: sales. Marc hit it too with the ‘focus group’ comment. I’m glad you’re talking about this and creating the dialog that needs to happen. We’re too easily swept along in the technological tide – and there are too many (lower economic stratus) that are already left behind.

    Excellent, as always!

    • very important point at the end there, DJ – you’re aware of the #digitaldivide hashtag on twitter I think – I know Guy (@glecharles) and Charles (@leftunderbooks) are also amongst the voices calling out on this. I tr to keep my politics to a minimum here, but over at Aggie’s Shoes I sometimes let rip. Jenn has the same uncensored approach on her blog.

  8. I can say from experience that the idea of collaboration is different in the film industry. WhenI made my first short film, it dawned on me just how much I would have to compromise. I had actors with pages of notes on their characters, I had art directors with different visions of my landscape. As both writer and director, I didn’t have to worry about those differences, but a lot of films see these problems. The final product, however, is always seen as the director’s achievement, despite the amount of input that comes from numerous outside sources, and despite the fact that the director may not have even written the script.

    When it comes to writing, I think we all become considerably more proprietary. Probably because it is traditionally a solitary pursuit. I myself am not very good a writing collaboratively — I don’t know how to meld with another’s voice or to express another’s ideas. I can film them, but I can’t write them.

    I am pretty shocked that they would accuse you of exploitation, Dan. I don’t see how it could be viewed that way, if looked at with any intelligence. Unfortunately, we are all too quick to gripe before making an informed decision.

    I agree that we are all working towards a common goal here, and I like that a lot. I find it very exciting. I like the idea of a collective, I like the idea of a movement. But then, I grew up with Tzaras in my eyes (excuse the pun, couldn’t resist it…)

    • So to what extent in the film world would you have seen yourself as an auteur – using and shapnig the contributions of others as I’ve defined it here. And to what extent were you just pursuing your single vision? I wasn’t meaning to imply that everything was collaborative in this day and age – I was simply trying to tease out the various forms multi-agent work can take. Most writing is certainly absolutely single-minded – which is surprising given it’s these writers who are most likely to try the mainstream route and hand their work to an agent and editor who will wrest away pretty much ALL control.

      Puns are the oil that keeps the pen flowing 🙂

      • To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it at all while filming — aside from grumbling at the actors’ notes a little. When I did my friend’s music video for him, I let him have full control and basically set up the lights and held the camera, making the decisions for the venue and the theme. It was all completely fluid, though. I was just trying to get on film what he had in his head. And for my own stuff — just trying to get other people to set up what I had in my head. The mere involvement of anyone else changes the idea, necessarily. That can be difficult. It’s hard to hand over your idea for interpretation before it’s finished and presented. But it can come out stronger for it (or else, shittier).

        As far as the writing goes, I’m still confused about the idea of multi-agent creations. I can see that others have succeeded in it beautifully — but I think there is a level of trust involved, and more importantly, a level of malleability. I’m like ol’ Julius — I have trouble working with the Senate sometimes.

        It’s interesting that my reactions are so vastly different re: film vs. prose. One makes me a team player and the other makes me a despot, yet they are equally intimate.

      • Did sum one men shun puns?

      • @Daisy Like I said to Heikki – no one’s gonna force anyone to do anything multi-agency! Just interested by the mechanics of it, and trying to send out a large BS detector like DJ said 🙂 whatever and however you do is just brilliant as it is!

        @Marc – you see, I KNOW, that HAS to be you. I had actually typed in the remark “puns are great but don’t let Marc see because he’ll be churning them out all night” but I deleted it because I thought it would be rude and uncalled-for. Hmm..

      • Ten shun!

        Got me bang to writes Dan

  9. I haven’t tried the new methods yet, but I am very intrigued by the new possibilities. Even getting feedback in these volumes is nothing short of amazing especially for me.

    I am not sure about the methods; do we envision something like messenger-based joint storytelling, or emailed snippets, or rewrites of each other’s work? I am open to all eventual avenues.

    And I would just like to state my immense gratitude for being allowed to hang out with such a cast. Thank you Dan for blazing the trail and all of you for joining in the wave.

    • Heikki, I’m not advocating we do any of this necessarily, although the myriad possibilities fascinates me. or me what’sr eally great is having just enough commone ground and approach that we all think about the same kind of things – and that’s enough to make our very different ways of trying to answer the qeustion better than if we approached them alone. In terms of the limits of possibility – on the Aggie’s Shoes blog I played around with the idea of “geo-specific novels this way, meshing geocaching, LAN gaming, extreme tourism, flashmobbing, and wiki-creativity ” – the ideas are limitless. But we always need to think what’s realy new and what’s just a tech gimmick.

      Goes without saying that every group works better with you in it – socially of course, but most of all creatively.

  10. @Dan: Oh, I didn’t think anyone was going to be forced! I was just interested in how it could work, because something in me shrinks from it. I like the idea of collaborating with people who use different mediums — but more than one writer on a single project that would traditionally be a solitary effort perplexes me. Novels written by two or more people blowme away. How did they achieve that singularity of vision? How did it turn out so cohesive? Why can’t I do that?

    As far as puns go, I’m a huge fan. An apologetic, but huge fan.

  11. 🙂 the possiblities are endless. There are twitternovels like The Frog and The Scorpion where they alternate tweets. There’s stuff like Jenn does. I love the geospecific stuff but that’s because it has a 3D feel to it. A great project was MCM’s 3D1D – see http://www.1889.ca where he wrote in etherpad – you could see each character stroke in real time!

    The most successful collaborations are still detective stories – possibly always will be – two minds together can be great for solving “how’d they do that?” dilemmas – where it’s mechanics rather than voice that matter.

    I guess the place to look first is music – many great songs are collaborations – if we really want to understand how it could work with writing we should probably understand how it works in music – I’m always pestering my friends in bands about it – I’m like Leonardo with a cadaver – I want to know how it works and then see how I can apply it to my art. I love it so many people are just as obsessed with asking questions!

  12. I love the idea of writing collaboratively – I see it as a way of breaking out of the constraints imposed by ego. (A lot of academic writing is collaborative, of course, but there you usually just have different authors taking the lead on sections where they have expertise – in medicine, for example, the statisticians usually write a lot of the methodology and results sections, because very few medics do their own stats.) It’s not the same as stories written collaboratively, where several writers, each with their own voice, create something exceptional that none of them would’ve written as individuals.

    I think you’re right about song-writing, Dan. Maybe there’s a kind of Lennon & McCartney way of writing and rewriting on a theme. But it’s something that might work better face-to-face, rather than online?

  13. Yes, Larry – although that’s an area where the arts/science divide really shows. Many in the humanities guard every word until the moment it’s published for fear of it being stolen – in the sciences it’s just teams who guard their secrets but the information flows within them.

    I know what you mean about face-to-face the way you spark off each other is almost a physical rather than mental thing sometimes – I wonder if googlewave with its collaboration tools will make a difference?

  14. The problem I have with communicating just by text is ambiguity, especially when brief, telegraphic messages are sent – you don’t have the physical cues from facial expression, tone of voice and other non-verbal signs which tell you when, for example, someone is joking or feeling cross. So I’d agree with you that it’s a rich, multi-factoral communication that enables people to spark off each other face-to-face. I’ve just looked up Goggle Wave, because I hadn’t heard about it, and it sounds exciting – the idea of using video, maps, pics and so on might help get round some of the limitations we’re taking about.


  15. Just popping in again and noticed no one has mentioned PostSecret – to me this is one of the finest examples of crowdsourcing disguised as collaboration. I realize I might be alone in this opinion, but I find something unnerving about the fact that Frank Warren – who started PostSecret, and who is an entrepreneur of no little skill – has basically been able to build an almost cult-of-personality around his idea: strangers send him anonymous postcard art and he is able to take ownership and has produced several books featuring this ‘art’ (though the books are attributed to ‘Frank Warren’ and, presumably, the profits. It’s a clever scheme – even if there is some charity association (suicide hotlines, etc), it has still made him famous while never having to produce a single thing himself.

    I find it a bit of a laugh that he describes PostSecret as an ‘ongoing community art project.’ I am certain many of the ‘secrets’ posted are likely fictitious, and I find it just as amusing that so many continue to contribute in the hope of being featured in one of the books – without any sort of credit, of course.

    Any one have any thoughts on this one?

  16. I’ve seen this on the news a few times, DJ. It’s interesting that it’s always portrayed as a delightful and wonderful thing. But (despite the writers’ anonymity) it does raise some real issues. I’ll get back to you after work. Interesting in relation to @secrettweet as well – although there is no individual at the centre of that

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