Umbrella of Crowdsourcing

The people at The Daily Crowdsource – the “#1 site for crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and open innovation news” – have come up with a proposed taxonomy of their field in an info-graphic. David Alan Greir says; ” In order to develop best practices, common ways of handling common problems, and a unified way of presenting the group to the public, we need a standard set of categories. This document is an important step in that direction.” As they define it, “Crowdsourcing involves getting a crowd of people to help you with a task. You ask an undefined group of people to perform a task for you, and anyone who’s interested may perform the task.  You’ll get finished work from dozens of participants, which you get to select the best one(s) from.”

Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon which demonstrates the ambiguity of public participation. If, as Henry Jenkins recently suggested, Web 2.0 is,” a corporate strategy which attempts to capture and monetise aspects of participatory culture”, then crowdsourcing is one of the mechanisms of that strategy, through which companies can get unpaid input on a rebrand, the outsourcing of micro-tasks to low paid workers etc. If we are interested in cultural expression, crowdsourcing is a troubling concept. The word itself suggests an anonymity among those taking part. The transaction is a many-to-one business – an odd reversal of the one-to-many dynamic of broadcasting. Yet Crowdsourcing is proving a powerful phenomenon in the cultural sphere. Take a look at some of the success stories on Kickstarter, for instance, the crowdfunding platform for the arts.

In the field of production, various documentary projects have been created through crowdsourcing, as it’s defined above. The wonderful “Man with a Movie Camera: a Global Remake” was a very deliberate experiment with this method, and can fit neatly into the “Microtasks” category, though perry bard, the artist/producer, broke the template in a significant way by setting herself a rule to include everything that was submitted. bard’s work brings to mind Aaron Koblin‘s early art pieces that explored the crowdsourcing of micro-tasks – The Sheep Market & Ten Thousand Cents.

Ridley Scott & Kevin Macdonalds’ feature documentary “Life in a Day” has been described as a crowdsourced project and could fit readily into the “Contests” category, as described above. It began with an open call to action which solicited a mind-blowing 80,000 video contributions. The filmmakers then made the selections, and participants received various levels of reward if their content was included, with a lucky few getting the prize of joining the Oscar winning director at the Sundance Festival. Yet this is certainly a co-creative work, albeit with highly uneven levels of editorial control.

“You ask a group of people to perform a task”, as the definition says, but when that “task” is an expressive act of recording video, then what comes about is footage which speaks of and from a place, and individuates members of the crowd. Macdonald certainly shaped “Life in a Day’, but it was made from individual contributions which have an integrity and vividness in the finished film. (I did question, though, the decision not to caption those individuals on-screen with their name and location.)

So it might feel comfortable, but it’s not simple, or  I suspect useful, to draw a dividing line between crowdsourcing (bad) and more elaborate forms of collaboration (good). The affordances of crowdsourced and collaborative production are with us now, though we’re in the early days of articulating the values, aesthetics and ethics of the documentary processes and forms that they allow.

How do we delineate crowdsourcing, collaboration and co-creativity in these works? How do we understand a shared process of meaning making? Is participation in these projects a good in itself? How do the process and the finished product interrelate? If there is profit – financial, reputational – who benefits? These are complex questions, without ready answers.

I think it’s helpful to think of these questions alongside the definition of Participatory Culture, developed in 2006, by Jenkins and co-authors Ravi Purushotma, Katie Clinton, Margaret Weigel and Alice Robison. They describe a participatory culture “as one,

With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
Where members believe that their contributions matter
Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).”

This definition doesn’t provide answers to the questions posed above, but shifts the terms of the discussion towards issues of value, context and community.

Meanwhile, that info-graphic brought something to mind – the umbrella, the retro colourway, the “U… of C…” –  “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg“! A film from 1964 with sung dialogue, an extravagant visual style – an aesthetic so singular, idiosyncratic, it’s the very essence of an auteur sensibility (and fabulous. Do go and see it.) Now that is a strange collision – Jacque Demy and crowdsourcing – and surely an excuse for a clip.