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09.20.07 / inko9nito

Would you like some structure with that?

So, it’s pretty safe to conclude that the ease of contributing for Assignment Zero left much to be desired. We can’t say that Assignment Zero failed (it didn’t) because contribution was only part of it. Probably the biggest part was the observation of how such a project could be carried out, what needed to improve, and whether it would work at all.

What is happening with Assignment Zero is what happened with its predecessors – when printing was invented people started printing out fliers and newspapers to inform others and invite them to join their cause. When this new way to communicate emerged people screamed “freedom!” but soon it became proprietary and no longer free. Some sources were just more reliable and interesting than others and they were written by the elite few.

What is happening with blogs is that many produce content, but few blogs are read (compared to how many total blogs there are out there). Assignment Zero takes it to another level. They assemble a crowd to write a blog entry. It is a crude simplification but that’s basically what they are doing. It is hard for a crowd to collaborate in a meaningful and productive way, therefore some structure has to be introduced.

The designers built in numerous topics for contributors to colonize when they arrived. But the AZ team chose to hold off recruiting editors until after the launch, with the result that when contributors signed up, they essentially arrived at a ghost town.

When I first heard about the project I wasn’t impressed. The fact that some people would be turned off by the lack of specific instructions was inevitable.

“What we learned,” says Rosen, “is that you have to be waaaay clearer in what you ask contributors to do.

It’s no surprise that “…assignment Zero began to resemble a professional journalism outfit. Editors and contributors discussed potential questions; the interviews were scheduled, conducted, transcribed, filed and edited.” That’s what happens when you get a group together to work on a specific project. Wikipedia is another story – there isn’t a specific project in mind. You can create a page on virtually any word, sentence or name you wish. Less limitations yield less management. Creating a story on a specific topic requires more management and administration, thus requiring and gaining the structure seen in the MSM pressroom.

But they were going for anarchy (in the literal Greek sense of the word as “no authority”)! Let them collaborate and decide, we’ll stay out of it. Except it doesn’t work that way. There has to be a governing body. Anarchy can’t exist in our world. “You couldn’t be more wrong,” you say, “the internet is a perfect example of anarchy.” Is it? How many social networking sites do you belong to? How many forums? Are you a blogger? All those sites have structure. MySpace has “Tom” who doesn’t let you post risqué videos or photos. Most forums don’t allow profanity. “No! But I blog! Nobody controls me there!” Wrong again. Except this time you are in control. Do you allow comments? Do you mark them as spam? No anarchy there. You are a dictator.

Our class midterm wiki couldn’t illustrate it better. Most of us were reluctant to start adding information because we weren’t sure of how to organize it (others were lazy, but let’s hope most just wanted structure for the sake of the argument, ok?). We even have a recorded outcry for organization and structure.

Another argument for the originality of the concept AZ illustrated was that:

…contributors volunteered to tackle subjects about which they were passionate and knowledgeable. In this they held a considerable advantage over professionals, who often must complete interviews with little time (or inclination) for advance research.

It is a community’s ability to allocate intellectual resources organically in this way that can make it a more efficient machine than a traditional, hierarchical organization.

Okay, so we have far more in-depth interviews because the interviewers are themselves interested in the subject. Don’t we see that with MSM already? I doubt they hire programmers to cover sports stories. They hire someone who is knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. AZ’s journalists were probably far more passionate about the stories they covered though, I’ll give them that. But the idea is still not radical enough for me. I find too many similarities to the mainstream media and am afraid that it will eventually evolve to be just that.

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