Jeff Howe recently offered some reflection on Wired's crowdsourcing journalism project, Assignment Zero. As noted in the Wired article and discussed at Smart Mobs and around the web, the project is being described as either a modest success/productive failure. You can go to the article for the details, but the lessons learned from the project are useful ones for thinking about crowdsourced composition projects, such as the work I do with NeoVox and in many professional writing classes.
It turns out the designing a crowdsourced project is not unlike developing a constructivist pedagogy. On one hand, you need to provide sufficient structure for the participants. As Jay Rosen, NYU professor and head of the project noted, “you have to be waaaay clearer in what you ask contributors to do. Just because they show up once doesn’t mean they’ll show up over and over. You have to engage them right away.” A lack of structure led many would-be participants to drift away. On the other hand, you need to allow participants to establish their own structures, to allow their passions and interests to shape the project, and build a community. Howe explains that as the Assignment Zero team sought to repair the project, they
made the decision to shift the goal from producing scores of feature stories to producing scores of interviews. Asking contributors to 'write the story on open-source car design' had all the appeal of asking people to rewrite their college term papers. Asking them to talk to someone they admire and respect was met with a far warmer response.
Yes, what could be more emblematic of an uninspiring, purposeless writing task than the "college term paper." No one would ever want to write one of those, right? And yet, one of the more interesting lessons from the project is the wide variety of motives that do inspire people to join crowdsourced projects including improving one's reputation in a community, developing a particular skill, and the possibility of financial gain. (Hmmm... it would strike me that students go to college and select courses for similarly complex sets of reasons.)
Of course, there are important differences between a publishing project and a classroom, namely that a publishing project is ultimately valued in terms of its products; a classroom's success is based on the more nebulous value of the learning experience (even though we typically--and in my mind insensibly--confuse learning with successful products).
So I think the trick with building a crowdsourced community writing project is to approach the task rhetorically (surprising, huh?). First off, you're not looking for everyone to join. You're looking for individuals who are knowledgeable about the subject on which you are writing, are energetic, committed, and tech savvy enough to not need tons of technical support. In short, you need to understand that the first audience of any crowdsourced project is the crowd itself. Audience awareness here will have a strong influence on how the project is originally designed.
Second, a crowdsourcing project is one flow point in an ongoing conversation. If a project is going to be crowdsourced, it's b/c their is already an existing conversation with participants who might want to be part of the project. In addition, the project is going to result in products that will continue this conversation beyond the crowdsourcing community. Clearly the participants will have some role in defining these things, but it's necessary, I would imagine, to make sure they think in such directions. I know that would be the case in a student, crowdsourced project.
Third, you have the issue of ethos. Wired obviously has a reputation that can back up a project like this. As a participant, you can believe that Wired is only going to publish quality material, that the editors in the project will be professional, and that ultimately you are participating in a reputable project.
Anyway, that's what I've got right now, but thinking about Assignment Zero does have me thinking about ways of shaping the NeoVox project into the future.