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January 5, 2009

Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project:

What technology is required to contribute?

Every layer of technology (camera, microphone, phone, software, credit card, broadband, mouse, sharpie, screwdriver…) adds a potential barrier-to-entry to your project. Can any be substituted? Is that clear?

What skill sets are required to contribute?

Do not assume that the audience has the same degree of media literacy that you do. Many people do not know how to use image-processing software at even the most basic level. Cropping photographs, merging photographs, taking screenshots, capturing audio, compressing video are all specific skill sets that not everyone possesses, and that can potentially limit the number of contributors.

Are you using specialized language in your instructions?

Be aware of any specialized language that you are using in your instructions or in the description of the project. Words and phrases like “cache”, “ftp”, “social book-marking”, “beta”, “screengrab”, “firewall”, “tagging”, “tweet”, “proxy”, etc… may not be part of your audience’s vocabulary.

Are you unnecessarily excluding people that don’t speak your language?

Can you display your instructions in a way that is not language -dependent?

If you are providing an example, does that example skew the impression of the possible range of contributions?

Be aware that any example you display can be seen as a hint or piece of advice for new contributors. In some cases this is helpful if you want to guide the project in a certain direction, however it can also reduce the number of unexpected creative solutions to your rule set.

Can people contribute in the same physical location as where they receive your instructions?

If a majority of your audience receives your instructions while at work, they will not be able to immediately contribute to a project involving photos of their front lawn. If you send instructions via twitter and people receive instructions on their cell phones they might not be able to immediately record audio. Think of the spatial distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Can people contribute at the same time as when they receive your instructions?

Is your project time dependent? Does it involve a sunset? Bedtime story? Birthday? How long will it take? Will people have that amount of time when they receive the instructions or will they have to wait? Think of the temporal distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Are you assuming your contributors have contextual information about the project outside what is included in the instructions?

If someone knows nothing about you, your work, or any larger context in which the project exists, will they still have enough information to contribute?

How broad or narrow is the set of possible contributions?

Are there a finite number of possible contributions? Are there a limited number of categories into which all contributions will fall? Will this appear repetitive? Is the range so broad that the project won’t appear cohesive? Are the rule sets so broad that they do not supply enough boundaries to play against?

For example “post your favorite Obama attack ad” has a small and finite number of possible contributions, whereas “make something out of legos” is perhaps too broad and lacks significant boundaries to inspire contribution.

Continued here

January 8, 2009

Installment #2 of “Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project”

(click here for the first installment)

Would you want to contribute to this project?

Many potential projects might seem intellectually interesting and might sound good on paper, but fall apart when you imagine yourself actually participating. It is easy to get excited about the concept of the project as a whole, as a completed collection of many contributions, without taking the time to imagine what it will be like to participate in just one part of it.

What would you anticipate being the best part of contributing to the project?

Is your project like a puzzle? Is the best part trying to figure out a novel or best solution? (For example creating a haiku that explains Christianity). Is the actual act of contributing, the creation of the media, the best part? (For example recording audio of you and your child singing, or filming a power move) Will the best part be seeing yourself included in a gallery? Having your voice heard? Getting feedback? Is it something else? Is it a feeling of contributing to the greater good? Or is it the same sort of satisfaction you get when you alphabetize your books? The feeling of a set being completed? Of order being created?

Are you facilitating multiple rewards for those who contribute?

Some projects can be engaging/fun/rewarding to different people in different ways. Interact with contributors to find out what it was that they responded to, and make sure you are facilitating those experiences. If it is feedback, encourage feedback, if it is the process of contributing – ask questions and make suggestions to make it even better.

How personal or impersonal are the contributions?

I was once told (by a poet) that poems are like photographs: people only get interested if they’re in ‘em.

This may not apply directly to every contributory project, but I think it is good food for thought. Personalization impacts a project in three ways: First it can create desire and inspiration, second it connects the contributor to the contribution (throughout the life of the project), and third it creates another lens through which the project can be browsed/appreciated.

In terms of desire and inspiration: Personalized rule sets allow people to contribute what is specific to them – their image, their voice, their taste, opinion or experiences. The contribution is not judged by some external standard, but rather on what each person knows best – themselves. It levels the playing field.

In terms of connection to the contribution: The most obvious connection is made if someone submits his or her face, likeness, or voice. Revisiting the site means coming across a mirror – you are placed personally into the project - beyond what you have specifically contributed. This also makes it easier to share the project. Other people have no problem spotting you in the work - no explanations are necessary.

In terms of creating an additional lens through which to view the project: People are more interesting than things. Personalizing a project allows viewers to browse people as well as the project itself. Projects that include faces are perhaps the best example. Even if the focus of the contribution is something else: a written sign, something worn, an object held, I find myself scanning faces.

Of course not every project can include a picture of a face - there might not be any pictures at all. But any contribution that represents personal taste, opinion, or experience is a lens through which to explore other people, to try and figure them out, to imagine who they are. Virtual, meta people watching.

For example: if a project asks people to post songs containing the word “garbage” there is little room for people to express themselves. “Post songs that make you cry”, on the other hand, is highly personal - and the contribution, although not a direct product of the contributor, says a lot about them.

There are no hard rules here, and finding a personal angle on a project often takes a bit of work (if it is even possible). It is, however, one of the most useful questions that I have asked myself, and has made many projects more enjoyable and more successful.

Do the contributors know who the audience is?

Are people aware that a larger audience will see their contribution? Do they understand the context in which it will be displayed? In the case of reviews, comments, examples, stories - are they addressing you? or are they addressing everyone else that will experience the media? Do they think they are creating something for “people just like them”?

(I have tried to expand on this in the following post: Awareness of Audience)

January 13, 2009

Awareness of Audience

For me, the awareness of audience is one of the most exciting aspects of an authorship society. The jumbled nature of this awareness however, can be a hindrance to large-scale group collaboration.

First let me explain what I mean by “awareness of audience”.

During the creative process, the process of making a thing, I find that there are a few different states that I occupy. Of course my experience varies quite a bit from project to project, but these have proven to be reliable generalizations.

The first state is an introduction. This is where an idea presents itself in my mind. These early ideas are soft and fuzzy and can’t be fully grasped. So I turn them around, and tug at them and try to look at them from a number of different angles. I might imagine what it will be like to execute the idea, to walk myself through the experience of doing what needs to be done. I might imagine what the finished product will look like. I might also imagine how someone else will perceive the finished product, or how someone might react when they hear about it. I look at it as an early vetting process. Does it excite me? Will it be tedious to make? Will other people like it? All of this happens in my mind. And because the idea is just an idea, and the audience I am imagining is imagined, there is plenty of wiggle room. Potential criticism is met with potential alterations, potential praise is met with potential false modesty. This is the first place where an awareness of audience comes into play, but the awareness is often broad and non-specific.

The second state is a trance. This is where I am absorbed in the process of making. I focus on details and techniques that have little to do with the way I thought about the initial idea. Deciding between a 2” or 3” drainage pipe has little to do with the idea of a dream house, for example. The project, which is at this point just a collection of disjointed parts, is kept alive by the whole imagined at the outset.

The third state is an awakening. At some point, usually in the last third of the project (although I have referred to “80% complete” in the past,) I experience what I am working on as a whole in its own right - as something external. This usually occurs suddenly, much in the same way that I first experience autumn. Some small trigger, a leaf or a brisk wind, causes me to realize that autumn has crept up all around me while I still dreamt of summer. How could I have missed it? It can be harsh and it can be wonderful, but either way it tends toward sadness.

From this point forward the project can become quite a bit more difficult. There is a tension between that amorphous original idea and the very real thing that you have in front of you. Some of the dreams that kept you motivated might vanish. Parts of the project you thought would sparkle just don’t, while other unintended parts do. And that imagined audience that you could negotiate with when your idea was just an idea, now has something concrete to judge, to laugh at, or to love.

I think for a lot of people (including me more often than not) this is an unconscious process, and manifests itself in waves of frustration and self-doubt. Sometimes it is possible to push all these feelings aside and allow that original idea to fill in all the defects and hard edges of the thing created - until you convince yourself that the two are identical. We have all experienced someone that seems unable to look at their work with a critical eye.

This term, “critical eye”, might be what I am trying to get at with “awareness of audience”. If you apply a critical eye to your own work there is, of course, no physical unblinking eye. You conjure up some internal perspective through which to view your work. What shapes this perspective?  Sometimes you might imagine interacting with someone from your past – a loved one, a bully, a mentor. You might try to imagine a group – like “urban males age 18-25” based on what you have read, seen on TV or extrapolated from all the urban males age 18-25 you have encountered. Or the perspective might be an emotional state, like “cynical and ready to fight”, or “adoring but with high expectations”. In all of these cases you are creating a representation of a possible audience, you are imagining an outside world and its relation to you and the thing you are making. This is what I call “awareness of audience”.

For example, when you write a comment, or a facebook status update, or anything that goes out to a group of people – pay attention to how you imagine it being perceived. Are you imagining each person individually? Have you created some in proxy individual for the group? Are you aware of an unknown audience? What are they like? Is there a mood associated with them? How did it all come to be?

I mentioned at the outset that I find all of this to be very exciting. For me, as a result of the proliferation of authorship tools and the creation of a universe of potential audiences, this “awareness of audience” represents a sea change in the way that people perceive themselves in relation to the world around them.

I also mentioned that awareness of audience can be vexing to a collaborative project, and I am embarrassed that all this writing leads up to such a simple point, namely: If there isn’t a shared sense of who the audience is, between you and the contributors, or between the contributors themselves, the final project may appear disjointed.

One example might be if you wanted to create a project that would ultimately be viewed by a large and diverse audience, but your contributors were under the impression that it was for a small insular community. The result might be contributions that play off local, contextual knowledge (inside jokes and obscure references) and are difficult for a larger audience to appreciate.

In the extreme, contributors might think that the intended audience consists only of other contributors. A line-by-line collaborative short story can quickly shift to a line-by-line non sequitur competition, which is very fun for those who participate and utter gibberish to everyone else.

Comment sections often contain excellent content (for example if you ask a question in a post), but require the reader to jump from comments directed to an audience-at-large, to comments directed to the blogger himself, to comments directed at other commenters.

I’m not sure that this jumble of intended audiences can be completely avoided in anything but the smallest group projects. And in some cases, this jumble is what makes a project wonderfully interesting, weird and unexpected. However, there are a few ways to bring the project into sharper focus.

First you can directly state what you consider to be the intended audience: “write as if speaking to a child”, or “give advice to new buyers”. Second, you can reference a specific style (which takes the place of an audience): “like a soap opera”, “in the style of an encyclopedia”. And third, you can add a “final presentation” to the project: “Fifty entries will be displayed at this location when the project is done” or “images will be included in a book”. This at least creates a shared context for how all the contributions will be viewed, and can point to a broader audience (this ad will be shown during the superbowl), or to a very specific audience (this will be displayed at the children’s hospital).

If you are interested, I previously asked a number of people (including Ben Stiller, Imogen Heap, Clay Shirkey, Jane McGonical and 20 other artists, designers, musicians and writers) how they thought about audience during the creative process. You can read the responses here

January 15, 2009

Additional Notes on Awareness of Audience

This is a follow-up to this post based on emails I received.

1) Writing makes me self-conscious. Self-consciousness is the worst form of audience awareness. It is less rational than a critical eye - more like a dark cluster of emotions: sadness, fear and loneliness. When I write, I feel as though I am playing with an extremely thin thread, unintentionally tying tight little knots with my large clumsy fingers.

1a) "I tie knots" :: "Try not tying knots" :: "Tying not-knots?" :: Yes, try tying not-knots"

2) To try and trick the self-consciousness away I framed this blog as “Notes and Advice to Someone Just Like Me.” I assumed that someone like me would be a more forgiving audience.

3) I was wrong. Ha!

4) I appreciate the irony of writing a series of posts on collaboration in the most non-collaborative way. I am open to suggestions. Ha!

5) When I used the word “trance” I didn’t mean an actual trance and I was not trying to romanticize the creative process. I meant it in the spirit of “he walked through the room as if in a trance.” - a lack of awareness of the outside world (in this case, the audience.)

6) I believe that the process I described in “audience awareness” is not limited to large projects; it can happen when I write emails, when I put on clothes, or when I have a conversation. I go through the process whenever I do or make something with the intention of being perceived by something external. There are exceptions. In some conversations (the good ones) you can feel joined with the other person to the extent that they do not seem to be an external audience. I would call this a trance, too (or participation). And it can be jarring when you separate.

7) Someone pointed out to me that “audience awareness” has quite a bit to do with feedback. How you conceive of an audience is often greatly affected by the sorts of feedback you receive. Two issues come to mind that might be worth exploring further. One I would call “On Being Thin Skinned”, which would deal with the difficulty of being emotionally open to feedback in a world where genuine assholes roam. And the other would be “On the Squeaky Wheel” which would deal with the fact that in most cases only a small portion of the audience will give feedback.

8. Knot

January 21, 2009

Some Quick Notes on Approaching a Single Day Consultancy:

If I find myself in the boardroom of a company that I am only vaguely familiar with, and I am asked to consult on a problem that I am only just learning about, I find it is useful to keep some basic approaches in mind:

Approach 1:: Ramming Your Square Peg Into Their Circular Hole

Although this is the silliest form of consulting it is often exactly what is expected of you. It comes from the notion that an idea is more valuable than the process by which the idea was generated. In this case you have been brought in because someone in the company has heard about your IDEA and thinks that your IDEA might be valuable in solving a problem that the company is facing. The success of these consultations depends more on the judgment of the person that invited you than it does on the quality of your idea. You are expected to explain your idea and then repeatedly frame their problem from the perspective of your idea. Sometimes it is a perfect fit, while other times you will struggle to spark a glimmer of synergy that you hope will burn just long enough so that you can get back to the airport.

Approach 2 :: Repeating Only What You Understand

This approach is painfully simple but is often more effective than (1). Here you might explain the IDEA that got you in the door only to the extent that it makes people in the room respect you as someone who is intelligent and open minded. Then you say that your IDEA might apply, but that you would first like each person in the room to explain exactly what they think the problem is. You will find that certain aspects of the problem cause people’s voices to trail off at the end of long rambling sentences. When everyone is finished, repeat the problem back eliminating anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat. This helps isolate the confusing parts of the problem and allows you to tackle those confusing parts from the perspective of what is understood, rather than letting confusion co-mingle with clarity.

On a side note, psychologists use a different sort of repetition to negotiate communication problems between individuals. One person begins by stating what they perceive to be the problem. The second individual is asked to repeat back what they heard. Often the first attempt is not a repetition, but rather an interpretation. For example: “I think you don’t respect my ideas” is repeated back as “You think that I should stop whatever I’m doing whenever you want something done”, instead of “You think I don’t respect your ideas”. Individuals are asked to go back and forth until they focus only on what is being said and nothing else. I have never mediated this sort of approach, but have heard it works quite well.

Approach 3 :: Riding The Elephant In The Room

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the problem that is being articulated isn’t the real problem. This often happens when there is something distasteful that people are uncomfortable bringing up – for example a negative attribute of a product being marketed, or a tough relationship with an outside person or team. It can be tempting to try and bring these issues directly into the open by yourself, but this can be jarring and counterproductive. It’s better to find a way to get the rest of the room to do the talking for you. One thing I have tried (and wish I could try more often) is joke writing. First I talk about the process of finding humor in a thing – for example using exaggeration, inverting relationships, finding metaphors and puns, increasing stakes, or switching contexts. Then everyone is asked to brainstorm and extend jokes about the project using these guidelines. The room is “safe” in that none of the information leaves, but it is also agreed that no personal information is to be used. In the search for funny, taboo subjects become excellent fodder – those subjects are the areas where the most tension is ready to be released. After the room has loosened a bit, and some themes have emerged, you can point them out and try and tackle them directly.

January 23, 2009

Notes on Scale

Jorge Luis Borges wrote that we each have three themes that guide our creative life. I don’t remember what his were exactly but I’m going to guess labyrinths, knife fights and memory. If you don’t know of him, I would start with Borges: Collected Fictions , which is certainly worthwhile. I’ve wondered if I have themes and what they might be. I’m almost certain one has to do with a visceral feeling of scale and density.

I have two strong memories from childhood related to this. The first is of a recurring nightmare, which has defied proper explanation for all these years (although I have found a few people that understand me immediately). It isn’t a visual dream so much as simultaneity of incongruous sensations: the feeling of something very small or insubstantial overlapped with the feeling of something massive and terrible. The closest visual metaphor I have found is that awful screensaver which auto-generates a system of overlapping pipes. I can get at that feeling if I imagine myself in the middle of an infinite volume of these tubes trying to hold onto a single piece that keeps vomiting more and more segments.

The second memory is of an evening when I visited a newspaper factory. I was very young; that age when doing anything away from home in the evening was thrilling. There was a huge metal drum that spun so fast that the just-inked newspaper pages were a blur of streaked grey. I could feel that drum. The floor shook. The noise was enormous. I imagined that if that drum became unhinged it would tear a neat-violent path through the whole city. It was awesome, in the old sense of the word. But then I looked down at my watch. And I saw that tiny little second hand.


The fact that those two moments could coexist was overwhelming. Almost nauseating. And I am drawn to this feeling in the same way that I can’t help biting a sore lip.

The Earth Sandwich is one example. Tiny bread. Big Earth. Another less straightforward example is the absurdist game “every second counts”. The increasing stretches of time and anticipation vs. the small gesture of the mouse button. I find this juxtaposition of scale in things that make me laugh. For example the crude and silly joke: “I have to go poop.” stated seriously followed by an utterance of the word “poop”. It only works for me if the sound is small. A little throw away.

On a more practical note:

I use scale as a way to brainstorm ideas around a theme. I try to imagine certain elements of the theme at extreme scale to see if it generates ideas. Dick Cheney in a wheel chair at the inauguration. Giant wheelchair. Armor plated wheelchair. Aretha Franklin’s hat as bullet proof protection. Aretha Franklin’s hat shrunk by the dry cleaners. Tiny. A tiny wheelchair just for your hand – imagine walking stooped over dragging a tiny wheelchair. A huge wheelchair with tiny wheels. A tiny wheelchair with huge wheels. An inauguration where no one showed up. An entire podium filled with senators and dignitaries and only a single person clapping in the audience.

I am also wary of too much reliance on scale, particularly a reliance on iteration. Iteration is often used to bolster weak ideas. For example I once thought it would be cool to animate each letter of the alphabet. “Each letter of the alphabet” is a reliance on iteration, and without anything beyond “animation” holding the project together, I petered out at the letter “I”. The same thing holds with projects that are framed with “Don’t worry, it will be awesome once there are a lot of them (contributions, for example). This usually means the project has been inadequately framed. The best contribution projects are like fractals – the beauty/interest of the entire project can be captured in a single entry.

This reminds me of something else relating to expectations for a contribution-based project. I think I will pick this up in the next post.

January 24, 2009

"Our bodies, blind, mourn for shapes remembered" :: lybwnbc

January 28, 2009

Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1)

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

2) Setting realistic goals makes you think realistically. Which is a bummer.

3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

#1 and #3 are a devious pair and that is why I kept them apart. It is a tragic fact that in defining what is hoped for, you simultaneously define what is feared. When you don’t care, the system is at rest, neutral. Adding hope adds potential emotional energy that is bound to become kinetic. Triumph or Defeat. Not Neutral no mo’. It is easier to stay in bed.

Besides the strain of it all there are rational tricks I can play to avoid setting expectations - especially online, where it is possible to peek into the machinery of success and get overwhelmed by all the moving parts. So many forces are at play and so many things depend on other things. It can be hard to imagine the path between wanting a thing and the thing itself. In hindsight it is satisfying to attribute success to unwavering desire and hard work, but those qualities are abundant in failure as well. Then an animated gif of a butterfly flaps its wings on server in Tokyo, somehow causing Amazon to sell more copies of “A Perfect Storm”.

Can you Digg it?

But what is the alternative? No expectations. Just react. When something sticks, ride it. That is a valuable skill, no doubt, but it doesn’t always feel very human. And it doesn’t make for a very good story, even if it is closer to the truth. ***

If I don’t actively set expectations I am usually disappointed no matter what. Without something concrete, I find that I secretly wish that every project were a run-away smash success. Internet Flash Toy Cures Cancer! Any moderate achievements are always compared to the next bar I had failed to set, like that weird moment when you hit a number playing roulette and suddenly whatever you won seems like nothing compared to what it could become. 1. 10. 100. 1000.

Next: What defines success…

January 30, 2009

Trying Again :: Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1 )

:: I am embarrassed by my last post. It is vague and tightly wound. I alluded to thoughts that I don't have the skill to fully express. This is another attempt at the same subject ::

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.
2) Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.
3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.
4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

This is a challenge I face in all aspects of my life. I avoid setting personal goals for myself, and I am sure it is because I am terrified of failure. I don’t think that I will overcome the fear of failing. But I am learning to think of it as the price I pay for the best moments of living.

Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.

Projects have this strange glow before they are released, even the bad ones. It isn’t based on anything rational; it is a secret wish. I think it is a feeling of unlimited possibility. I imagine that it is the same sort of feeling that people get when they buy lottery tickets. Thinking reasonably about what will happen to the project, and what would be “good enough”, pulls me away from that glow.

I could set my expectation for each project at “wild success”. But this would leave me perpetually disappointed. I could avoid setting a goal altogether and hope that I would be surprised by and appreciative of anything that happened. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Without concrete goals, any success feels like a wasted opportunity to have achieved the next level of success. In other words I kick myself for not having spent the time trying to anticipate what happened - so that I could be in a better position to take advantage of it, or at least feel like I had accomplished something.

I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

This is particularly true when success is defined by popularity, as so many online projects are. There are certain things that are in my control, and there are certain things that are out of my control. Ideally I would like to set my expectations based on the things that are in my control, but it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. In terms of popularity, true exponential growth is the ultimate prize (I don’t use the term “viral” because it has lost its original connection to exponential growth, and therefore has become meaningless). Being a witness to this sort of growth is stunning, and it warps one’s expectations of all future projects. It is easy to confuse exponential growth with the logical extension of linear growth – things get bigger and bigger and then they become REALLY big. But it is a different force. The mechanisms that lead to exponential growth are vexing. More vexing is the tendency for people who have experienced it to rationalize in hindsight, attributing success to conveniently human attributes (desire, hard work, vision). This is true not only online, but in all spheres where success is measured by popularity – music, film, tele-evangelism. There is wisdom to be gotten from these people, but it has more to do with how to deal with the event when it happens… not how to cause the event itself.

But some things are under my control. And setting expectations means asking myself which things are, and which things aren’t,. This can be difficult and even sad.

It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

This is a sad truth. Hope makes you both inwardly and outwardly vulnerable. It is exhausting to fail. It is exhausting not to know if you are going to fail. But I think the tension that hope brings is the key to vitality.

About January 2009

This page contains all entries posted to the explicit in January 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2008 is the previous archive.

November 2009 is the next archive.

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