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If the goal of a project is to get many people to contribute

Usually there will be a few contributions that are outliers in technical merit and scale. There is a temptation to reward these contributions by drawing specific attention to them while the project is running. This can sometimes have the effect of damping the project as a whole, since potential contributors will measure their work against an artificially high standard. Alternatively, only displaying the most recent contribution allows the tonality of the project to be at the whim of the last contributor.

Instead of only focusing on technical ability, draw attention to qualities that can be expressed by anyone: simplicity, individuality, and humanity. Allow there to be a feeling of “Hey, I could do that too”.


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Comments (7)

Will the outlying contributers get frustrated that the work they spent hours/days/etc on is not distinguished from stuff that other people casually tossed off? Will this discourage them from contributing further or participating in the community?

(And the more important questions: If so, is that bad? Are outstanding contributions valuable at all, or is it more important to maintain a consistently attainable level of quality? Do the outstanding contributions help to showcase the project at the end, or is the value of the project simply in its range and variety?)


Ze, we are always jockying for position in this great tribe of ours.

Here I want to say something about cherry picking contributor's contributions according to your whims/responsibilities/interests/whathaveyou as the project manager (or some two other words that make more sense here) and how the force of your (you: Ze) personality then shapes the project. And how that is okay for the majority of the people who contribute. Because if your (you: Ze) intention is one thing (a thing, like peaceful or benevolent), then the project will reflect that--your--intention, no?

But...I don't want to say it coherently apparently. And: Am I missing something? Is it something important?

And: You're succeeding at this in practice. Are you working back toward theory? A philosophy of--?

I'm intrigued, Ze. Looking forward to something? in 2009...


You know, ever since The Show I've been "hey, I can do that too"-ing pretty effectively :)



Of all the explorations on the page, I hate this one the most. We've all stood next to the fool in a museum who utters "I could make that."

Likewise we've all been inspired to try something by someone who's skill, we know, is far, far greater than what we could ever hope to achieve.

Swimming camps were packed this summer after Phelps' superhuman Olympic efforts.

I fail to see how celebrating greatness leads to an overall loss of energy within a community.

Every creator must wrestle with that moment of fear: "what if I suck?" Lowering the perceived median quality doesn't make that struggle any easier.

It also makes browsing the project far less interesting. Fewer motivated passive browsers means far fewer potential active participants.

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From Ze: I normally don't reply to anonymous comments, but i think you and i have something in common. When I come across a food i dislike, i don't push it away. Instead, I eat it more quickly to minimize the flavor. It seems that is what you did with this "exploration".

Here the focus was "If the goal of a project is to get MANY people to contribute".

I agree that anxiety and self doubt is sometimes a form of inspiration, but it is also a vicious deterrent.

The "fool" who stands in front of the Miro painting and says "I could do that", is right if he means "i could circles and squares on a blue canvas". Of course "doing that" involves placing oneself in the hierarchy of the art world, thinking of a new direction, getting the work seen and inserted into the broader dialogue of the museum. Not even the "fool" is so foolish to mean all that.

If a museum had an open call for entries for paintings in a certain style irrespective of the fame of the artist, which sort of show would receive MORE submissions: a Rembrandt-ish show or a Rothko-ish show?

Your Phelps swimming illustration is more to the point. However, here again you are trying to flatten an entire system into a counter-example.

First, I'm not sure that the pursuit of a sport can be called a "contribution" - individual races certainly could - but for the moment let's say that it can. So here the question would be - how do you maximize the number of swimmers?

First :

In the sort of swimming that Michael Phelps does, there are rules that determine who is paid attention to (relating to my entry): The swimmer with the fastest time gets a medal and a plaque on the wall.

If I wanted to get a group of people into a pool for the first time, or wanted to maximize the number of people in my pool, this would not be a good rule set to use. Nor would it benefit me to display Michael Phelps' times on the wall. Personally I would create smaller challenges like "Who Can Tread Water the Longest", or "Who is Best at Marco Polo" and I would pay attention to those things. There are far more people who swim in public pools than there are in swimming camps. That is because in public pools and lakes and oceans there are many more rules than just "Pay Attention to the Fastest". Maybe you will say - but that is not swimming, that is playing...swimming is about the fastest. Perhaps, but people are exposed to fast swimming after they have already gotten into the pool, and even then it is in relation to another equally matched swimmer, not Michael Phelps.


Michael Phelps became exponentially more famous in the last year, he did not become an exponentially better swimmer. More people paying attention to swimming means more swimmers, but that doesn't mean that having great swimmers means more swimmers. Relative to a beginner, how much better at swimming is Phelps than Thorpe? or any one of the top thousand swimmers? The difference is minuscule on that scale. But Phelps is far more famous.

The story of outlying excellence certainly can increase attention paid, but it is one of many stories, and not necessarily the one optimally gets people to contribute. The Special Olympics? The 90 year old marathoner? The

Alternatively, things that have little to do with excellence can become famous and can lead to the same sort of widened interest. When Busta Rhymes released "Pass the Courvoisier" more people started drinking Courvoisier. People signed up for karate after the "Karate Kid".


In one case, we have a large community pool and lots of people somewhat aimlessly swimming and splashing in the water.

In the other, we have an Olympian breaking records under bright lights.

What motivates more people to jump in and swim?

Outliers (whether beautiful creatures or ugly freaks) always draw attention.

You're really talking about the role of curation.

Didn't your old & new photo project take off after a few external sites showed some of the great picture combinations?

In the other direction, when the political sites latched onto a few images they hated in the win/lose project, the energy was clear there.

Energy comes from outliers. Why suppress it, even if you could?

:: :: ::

From Ze:

Please see my notes on your previous comments. Also:

You assume wrong. Neither YoungMeNowMe nor 52to48 had more contributions (measured in absolute terms or as a percentage) after they were picked up by the press. In fact in both cases, contribution declined as overall audience grew - same in Colorwars, same in The Show.

In your examples involving my work i am not sure who you mean when you say "outliers" - individual contributions? (can you point to one? is it clear what the outliers are?)

"Energy comes from outliers" doesn't mean anything, unless you mean "energy comes from outliers in regard to creating energy". On what are you basing this statement? A hunch? Direct experience? An extension of a world view?


Outliers refers to your first sentence at top: "Usually there will be a few contributions that are outliers in technical merit and scale."

Your premise is that drawing attention to outliers during the project can dampen participation, so you shouldn't do it.

My premise is that outliers can also inspire participation. And also that you can't control the attention individual contributions receive anyway.

Let's set aside the concept of "technical merit" (judged by whom?) and "scale" (whatever that means in this context).

You imply that a curator should instead reward "simplicity, individuality, and humanity." The irony being these are the hardest things to achieve by anyone, untrained or not, in any medium.

You show me a simple object with a high degree of individuality that says something about the human condition, and I'm pretty sure you're holding an outlier.

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From Ze:

Man - you can dodge and weave. I use the word outlier in a very specific way: outlier in technical merit and scale. technical merit is judged by whatever technical standards apply to a medium: Good technique.

Someone who can draw with technical ability, someone who can light a photograph professionally, someone who can use video post production software to apply effects and make things look "slick", someone who can use 3D rendering software well, someone who has an extensive vocabulary and knows the structure of arguments, etc...

Scale refers to the size of the contribution. If someone contributes a story when the norm is a paragraph, someone who submits an origami cathedral, someone who recreates a photo from their youth by replicating the outfit, the location and lighting exactly.

My premise, belief and real life observation is that drawing SPECIFIC attention to these types of attributes above all others tends to dampen participation.

Your definition of "outlier" is all over the place. You seem to suggest that when a blog picks up a photo from one of my projects, that photo is an "outlier". Are all things popular outliers? You then suggest that when a blog reacts strongly to 52to48, somehow that represents an "outlier". Are things that prompt strong emotional reactions outliers? You also include natural athletic ability, and I am starting to get the feeling that you just read Gladwell's book.

The kicker is when you define outlier as any "simple object with a high degree of individuality that says something about the human condition." Are you kidding? What isn't an outlier to you? A pen? Cheese? Focus man, focus.

Take the scribbler application. If I only feature drawings that were obviously done by people with drawing backgrounds - detailed, highly representational, kids stop submitting their drawings. Instead I look for other qualities to feature... to draw attention to.

Simplicity, individuality, and humanity are not hard to come by. They are overlooked all the time and are often buried in insecurity.

Of course things beyond our ability can inspire us. But we can also be inspired by being shown the gifts we possess.

At this point I feel like you are arguing for argument's sake, but if you would like to continue this conversation, please email me at ze@zefrank.com.

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